Sharp divisions over North Korea

US advocates halting work on reactors, while allies want to keep them as bargaining chips.

As North Korea ever more openly declares itself a nuclear state deserving of respect if not fear, the US and its allies in the region are further isolating the so-called "Hermit Kingdom."

With Pyongyang officially claiming nuclear capability, 23 Asian nations took an unprecedented step last week by calling on the North to rejoin the nonproliferation treaty. Meanwhile, the US is shopping a statement of denunciation at the UN. And Monday, a ferry service between Japan and North Korea, a lone source of cash and suspected smuggling of missile parts, was canceled again.

Despite these moves, sharp divisions remain beneath the agreeable unified surfaces, experts say. On nitty-gritty details about the nature of the North Korean regime - questions bearing strongly on next steps - there is still substantial debate among the allies, and within the US camp.

The North remains a hard-to-decipher "black box." The country's military capabilities, its impoverished conditions, the political dynamics of the regime, and the diplomatic "game" being played by "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il are all crucial strategic issues lacking consensus.

"One of the main problems we have is that there is no agreement on how to analyze or evaluate the North at this moment," argues Ronald Montaperto of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "There is no common understanding on the real situation inside the North."

Divisive reactors

Take, for example, the ongoing construction of light-water reactors in the North, a holdover from the scuttled 1994 Agreed Framework. Under the deal, the US and its allies agreed to build two nuclear reactors in North Korea in exchange for a freeze on the nation's nuclear weapons program. Despite Pyongyang's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and eviction of UN inspectors from its Yongbyon facility, construction continues. This August sees a deadline to deliver components.

South Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan, feel the reactors provide a card to play with the North. However, at a recent meeting of Japan, South Korea, and the US, the Americans felt that it would be a "silly exercise" to deliver components "in the midst of a nuclear crisis," says a source close to the meetings.

Ongoing disagreement over how willing Mr. Kim is to dismantle and abandon the North's 20-year-old nuclear program also continues; state intelligence agencies remain divided over how far the North has gone in reprocessing its plutonium.

Still, US leaders seem confident that the shaky regional coalition will hold long enough to bring Pyongyang to the bargaining table. Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, and other parties now agree the North must be approached through a common strategy that resists Kim's efforts to divide.

The US is tacitly embarking on what one US military expert calls an "undeclared policy of sanctions" against the North - tracking ships, getting Japan to inspect ports and ships and to close down sources of illicit drugs and dual use technology, and slowly squeezing the North's flow of cash.

Monday, in retaliation, North Korea canceled the Mangyongbong-92, the only passenger ferry between Japan and the North. A spokesman for a North Korean citizens group in Japan said the political pressure from Japan "in fact, amounts to sanctions.'' North Korea regularly states it considers sanctions an act of war, though has not spelled out specifics.

China's role

China remains the wild card in this coalition. Hawks and moderates in the White House differ over the kind of role China is playing - with hard-liners willing to go along with the moderates' position that China will actively dissuade Kim, on the assumption that China will finally disappoint and not deliver.

"China has dealt itself into the game now in a vital way," says Ralph Cossa, director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Hawaii. "They had been willing to say early on that the US was overreacting to the North.

"Now, with the North saying it is reprocessing, the Chinese can't just sit back and ride this out. There is a substantial constituency in [Washington] D.C. hoping that China will come through. There is also a strong camp that hopes China will fail."

Other substantive questions remain unresolved. For example, there are tactical arguments over the nature of the Kim regime. Some US officials are convinced that Kim is fully in charge of the North, and calls all the shots.

Others in South Korea and Japan say that, not unlike Saddam Hussein's Baath party, which represented a substantial power base that Mr. Hussein had to at least consider when taking decisions, Kim is not free to do whatever he pleases and must take steps with his generals and other party officials in mind.

Since three-way talks in April that included the US and China, North Korea has not made a move toward another round. The US seems content to wait for the North, though sources say that Japan, South Korea, and even allies like Australia are urging the US to keep the process moving.

Meanwhile, the North claims it is reprocessing plutonium fuel rods, and last week stated it needs nuclear weapons to defer the cost of an expensive conventional military, a claim most experts scoff at.

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