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Nuclear Fear as a Wedge

Nuclear Fear as a Wedge

Author: Howard W. French
Publication: The New York Times
Date: December 24, 2002
URL: http://nytimes.com/2002/12/24/international/asia/24KORE.html?pagewanted=1

North Korea's decision this weekend to remove international controls from its nuclear reactors and from a large supply of weapons-grade fuel is as much a political challenge as a military one, experts on the country's behavior say.

By taking possession of 8,000 spent fuel rods, the country could conceivably begin producing plutonium-based bombs in as little as six months, experts say. But as serious as this sounds, many analysts see another threat in the country's brash actions, and it could materialize even sooner: a weakening of the half- century-old alliance between South Korea and the United States.

A new and diplomatically inexperienced South Korean president is to take office here in February, and he seeks to pursue closer relations with his neighbor. Behind Pyongyang's latest actions, analysts detect a desire to take advantage of the new South Korean eagerness at the expense of the United States, just as America is enduring a period of intense unpopularity among South Koreans.

The North Korean ruling party's newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, alluded to this strategy in an editorial today that called for the two Koreas to work together to cut the United States out of the peninsula's diplomatic equation. "Now is the time for all Koreans to frustrate the U.S. imperialists' aggression and antireunification moves," the newspaper said.

Although no one here expects South Korea to oblige, North Korea's behavior clearly aims to deepen the cracks that have already made this country's relationship with Washington unusually fragile, and analysts who agree on little else say Pyongyang's timing could not have been more astute.

The Bush administration, which has spent two years avoiding serious diplomatic initiatives toward Pyongyang, insists there can be no dialogue with North Korea as long as it is in violation of major arms control commitments. Complicating matters yet further, Washington has been intensely focused on a possible war in Iraq, allowing North Korea to seize control of its deadly nuclear materials in the knowledge that the United States can scarcely take on two major conflicts at once.

This has been a season of huge anti-American demonstrations in South Korea, incited by the deaths in June of two schoolgirls who were accidentally crushed by an American military vehicle on patrol. The protests have revealed a deep wellspring of resentment of the large United States military presence here, and of what many South Koreans feel is their relegation to the role of barely listened-to junior partner. At the same time, feelings toward North Korea have softened, with this country's increasingly affluent and self- confident population looking more in pity than in fear at their neighbor and yearning to help North Korea rather than punish it.

Remarkably, after more than two years of high-profile efforts to engage with Pyongyang, public opinion surveys here show that South Koreans are as skeptical of their longtime ally, the United States, as they are of heavily armed North Korea.

The president-elect, Roh Moo Hyun, who emerged victorious last week in part on the strength of these sentiments, is an ardent advocate of engagement with North Korea, and has vowed to be assertive in dealing with the United States, which he has openly called heavy-handed.

Mr. Roh, who has never been abroad, has not had time to put together a national security team, and for that reason will be even more inclined to insist on extra time to develop a response to the North Korean challenge.

"I don't think the United States will make any quick judgment," said an official of the Blue House, the South Korean presidential office. "They will give a little time. Even when Bush was elected, it took one year to set up a foreign policy team. This is a very delicate period. I don't think any of the countries involved will expect any quick response."

North Korea's latest challenge is eerily similar to a nuclear crisis in 1994, when the Clinton administration drew up plans for a strike against the country's nuclear plants after Pyongyang made moves toward reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, ostensibly to make bombs.

Some voices in Washington have already begun to call for the United States to renew its threat to destroy North Korea's nuclear power center at Yongbyon.

"North Korea's purpose is to move the spent fuel rods to sites around the country where they could be weaponized in order to convince us that there can be no pre-emptive strike," said Chuck Downs, author of "Over the Line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy."

"We have to very graphically convey to the regime that this is unacceptable," he said. "That is something that the Bush administration doesn't want to do because we are distracted with Iraq and want to pick our fights, but the North Koreans are giving us no choice."

Critics of a muscular ultimatum say that the same constraints that eventually swayed the Clinton administration against attacking North Korean sites are still in place. Seoul and more than 30,000 American troops are within easy range of North Korean artillery, military experts say. Pyongyang could rain 300,000 to 500,000 rounds on this city in the first hours of a conflict.

What is more, if Washington pushes ahead with a more confrontational approach now, it risks badly straining relations with Mr. Roh, who has insisted that South Korea be given a bigger role in shaping the alliance's North Korea diplomacy.

"That is exactly the trap that is being set by North Korea," said Scott Snyder, Korea representative for the Asia Foundation and author of "Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior." Mr. Snyder said that without South Korean acquiescence, "military confrontation would come at the cost of our alliance, and could inflict damage to U.S. interests elsewhere in the region, as well.

"The North Koreans don't deserve this advantage, but the opportunity to divide the alliance was created by two years of drift in Korea policy, and their timing is impeccable," he said.

While some analysts have emphasized the potential military threat from North Korea's actions, others say its behavior, however alarming, is still focused on getting Washington to resume high-level discussions. The often repeated North Korean wish is for security guarantees from the United States. In exchange for them, it says, it will eliminate its weapons of mass destruction.

"These are very serious steps toward the production of more weapons-grade plutonium, but they are also very determined attempts to get us to talk," said Donald P. Gregg, a former C.I.A. Asia expert and former ambassador to South Korea. "I don't think these guys are crazy. As poker players, they have always had an ability to play a very poor hand very well, and they are showing that again."

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