Critical testing point for Korean nuclear crisis

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will have to be clear about his intentions in the coming weeks, analysts say.

The US-led war in the Gulf has brought a cacophony of words and acts to the nuclear standoff in Korea, as both North and South try to leverage their position for what comes after Operation Iraqi Freedom.

North Korea has, for the first time, cut off talks with the South, citing US-South Korean military exercises and mock tank battles along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). A Canadian United Nations envoy to North Korea warns that tensions there may lead to war if the US does not talk directly with leaders in Pyongyang. Meanwhile, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun says that fears of war are "groundless," since the US has pledged to end the crisis diplomatically.

Analysts say that whatever steps the US takes will depend directly on what kind of action - or inaction - North Korean leader Kim Jong Il takes in the next few weeks. Will he test mid- or long-range missiles? Will he begin reprocessing his plutonium fuel rods?

The American campaign in Iraq represents a critical testing point in the Korean nuclear standoff, analysts say. The next few weeks are regarded as a time when Mr. Kim will be forced to show his intentions. The current US focus on Iraq is considered Kim's best window of opportunity to move his nuclear and missile programs to a new phase of development, experts say.

"Everyone knows that after Iraq, the US will turn with greater intensity and focus to North Korea in a way that is uncomfortable for Kim," says Derek Mitchell a former Pentagon official, speaking from Seoul. "The clock is now ticking.... If North Korea is going to do something, they are going to do it now."

If North Korea does little, that would indicate that Kim is open to a more amicable settlement. But if, in the coming days, white-coated North Korean technicians flip the "on" switch at the Yongbyon nuclear reprocessing facility, or if Kim sends a test rocket into the skies above Pyongyang, Kim's desire for nuclear weapons can no longer be considered a brinkmanship bluff. "Predicting Kim is not easy, but I really think he will make a move," says Mr. Mitchell. "He plays brinkmanship, and he wants nuclear weapons. Not to act may look weak in his eyes, and the North doesn't play weakness very well."

In the days before the Iraq war, Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a warning to the North not to escalate provocations. Since admitting to a secret nuclear program in October, and starting up his dormant nuclear reactor in January, Kim has conducted an "immensely creative series of escalations," as one diplomat here says. "We were unprepared for all the little steps and big steps he has taken" - including a failed attempt two weeks ago to force a US spy plane down over North Korean territory.

Mr. Powell said that if Kim starts reprocessing 800 spent plutonium fuel rods, "it would make ... finding a diplomatic way forward much more difficult." US intelligence estimates Kim can produce a bomb's worth of weapons-grade plutonium per month, once reprocessing begins.

North Korea's nuclear bid has a tight link to the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, experts point out. UN inspectors probing Iraq after that war found a vastly greater nuclear capability than had been previously estimated. The 1993 Korean nuclear crisis resulted "from the push for special inspections in North Korea that came from what was discovered in Iraq," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul. "There were loopholes that needed to be closed - and now North Korea will again face this issue, at some point."

Since the first Gulf War, "North Korea has more and greater incentives to have nuclear weapons," as former foreign minister Han Sung-joo says. "The lesson they learned from Iraq is, 'Do your program quickly.' "

In the days after the Iraq campaign began, Pyongyang media was uncharacteristically silent about the US, shifting blame for tensions on the peninsula to South Korea's support of the Iraq war and its participation in military exercises. But on Sunday, North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper began a new campaign to deny that it has a secret uranium program, and accused US envoy James Kelly, who confronted the North in October with evidence of a uranium program, of "floating misinformation." Mr. Kelly earlier this month cited US intelligence reports that North Korea could put its uranium program on line in a "matter of months" - much earlier than previously thought.

Japanese officials Monday stated that military action against North Korea will not happen without consultation and agreement between the US, Japan, and South Korea. Friday, Japan will launch two spy satellites that will monitor North Korea.

South Korea officially supports the US war in Iraq. But a number of Korean leaders worry that a quick US victory may lead to hubris. "A short, decisive war will have an impact on North Korean leaders," says Kim Kyung Won, president of a foreign policy institute here. "It will scare them. I worry also what success will do to US policymakers. I hope they don't get carried away."

"US planners are pretty aware of the differences between Iraq and Korea and Iran," says one diplomat here. "But if Kim takes decisive steps, you can expect the White House to be quite proactive."

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