Weeks after admitting to a secret nuclear program, North Korea regarded 10 years ago as the No. 1 threat to Asia and the US is being rated more a diplomatic than a security crisis.
North Korea does have missile and biological and chemical weapons programs, along with its bid for a "nuclear option" and all have been significantly improved in the past decade.
Yet more persuasive to many Asian and Western states is a widely held consensus that the isolated North is changing: The North talks of reforming its medieval economy. Its military, once thought capable of holding the US to a standstill in Korea, today can only hold Seoul hostage to a fierce artillery barrage. Even leader Kim, formerly an unknown recluse, is spoken of as a hands-on rational player logical, not suicidal whose interest is the survival of his regime: by gradual reforms and by securing a US guarantee not to attack.
In normalization talks with the North in Malaysia Tuesday, Tokyo seemed to give the North's abduction of 12 Japanese a higher priority than the nuclear issue, some Japanese analysts say.
So prevalent is the view that the North is changing and that Kim lacks the food and fuel for a military adventure that experts living near the demilitarized zone are almost apologetic about saying the threat from the North is not over.
A comment made by a North Korean official to US envoy James Kelly earlier this month is echoing in US military circles. "You have 37,000 troops on our border," the North official said, according to a senior US official, "Of course we have a nuclear-weapons program."
Indeed, a clinical appraisal of the North's threat offers an arresting picture, US intelligence and other experts say. The crude and inaccurate Scud missiles deployed by the North in the early 1990s have given way to 600 accurate "Nodong" missiles with a range of 750 miles. A "confession" by a senior North official published last January speaks of a mountain called Kwanmo-bong that has been hollowed out at night, sandbag by sandbag, for a secret nuclear plant.
North Korea was formed by a military force: the strongest of bickering rebel units that fought the Japanese. Kim Il Sung, Kim's father, created a military nation a "Guerrilla Dynasty," to use the title of North Korea expert Adrian Buzo's recent book a main focus of which was to carry out operations in the South. Today, it spends more than half its budget on its Army, and has the largest special operations force on the planet some 100,000 crack troops.
"What is the most troubling threat by the North? I'd have to say the biological and chemical threat is the major one," says a senior US official whose brief includes the Korean peninsula.
In the 1990s, North Korea stockpiled an estimated 5,000 tons of chemical and biological agents, US sources say including VX nerve agent and sarin gas. A South Korean white paper published in 1999 says the North's capability in the biochemical area is "underestimated," and that Pyongyang may have 10 different toxic agents under development.
Speaking last month to the Korean-American Association in Seoul, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton argued that the North's bioweapons program is one of the largest in the world.
In the long term, worries also persist about North Korea's missile program. In 1998 the North launched a missile, the Taepodong-1, that showed Pyongyang had mastered the art of "stage separation," crucial in the eventual development of ICBMs. The North has agreed to a moratorium on testing missiles, something appreciated by Tokyo. But scientists can still work on technical aspects of the missiles range and accuracy as they are reported to be doing on a Taepodong-2 missile with a range of 7,000 miles, according to a report in February by analyst Anthony Cordesman.
Yet, Mr. Buzo points out, ordinary crisis management with Kim may be difficult, since "never before has a regime so indissolubly identified state survival with the possession of nuclear weapons."
After inspectors found traces of plutonium in a Korean reactor in 1993, the North threatened to withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty. Instead, the US agreed to build the North two reactors in exchange for international inspection of the North's plutonium. Still, the North is thought to have secreted away enough plutonium for two bombs and it would have enough plutonium for five more bombs if it breaks from the 1994 "Agreed Framework" with the US, as it this month threatened to do.
Nor is that all. The North mines uranium by the thousands of tons offering plenty of raw material for the secret uranium enrichment program it admitted to US officials this month that it had. A South Korean Defense Ministry "Handbook," published last December, states that "North Korea's nuclear technology is in the early stage of manufacturing finished high-explosive devices and the beginning stage of high-explosive testing."
One clear bit of evidence of bomb-making by Pyongyang is its ongoing work on "high explosive lens" testing, a necessary aspect of atomic weapons construction. "If the north has stopped its nuclear-weapons program, why is it doing any high-explosive lens testing?" asked US strategist Stephen Bradner at a conference in Seoul two days before Kim admitted to his secret program.
What gives some comfort, says one senior Bush administration official, "Is that, thank heavens, we have not yet seen the marriage of weapons and missiles in the North."
"What most accounts of Northern capability ignore is the picture from the other side," says a US scholar and expert on the North in Seoul. "Today, the US forces would end a war quickly. The minute Kim attacks, he knows the US will conduct an instant regime change.... Kim's got a lot of reliable technology from the 1950s and 60s, including nuclear, to exact a cost. But he's got no gas, no fuel one reason he's had to change his operational plan and put 70 percent of his troops in forward positions."
The North's fuel stockpiles are unknown, but gas is so depleted there that few cars run on city streets. Flights into Seoul at night show a huge glittering power grid in the South; 30 miles to the west, and as far as the eye can see into North Korea, is only a vast unlit darkness. Still, one analyst in Seoul argues that "We know [Kim] has fuel shortages, but we also know he has huge reserves for his army. The logic of a military state is to take care of its military."