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How dangerous Is North Korea?

By Romesh Ratnesar


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Dictator Kim Jong Il is pushing the world toward a showdown over his nuclear-weapons program

For those with access to it, the environs of Yongbyon, home to North Korea's main nuclear complex, can be a lovely place to visit. The country's founder, Kim Il Sung, so adored the region's azaleas and autumn foliage that he built a vacation home there, on a mountain overlooking the clear blue waters of the river near Yongbyon.

Late last month Yongbyon was the site of a party of sorts, thrown by 100 North Korean officials and attended by the two U.N. weapons inspectors assigned to monitor the complex for signs that North Korea is trying to restart its nuclear-weapons program.

In full view of the inspectors, the North Korean officials cut dozens of seals from a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor--reopening it for the first time in nearly a decade--and covered over U.N. surveillance cameras fixed to the walls of the plant. When they finished the task, the hosts celebrated with a round of beers. They were just getting started.

The next day, North Korean scientists began removing seals and surveillance cameras from a cooling pond where spent fuel rods had been lying untouched. They reopened a nearby facility designed to extract plutonium, which can be used to fashion nuclear bombs, from the spent fuel.

Appearing at the door of the Yongbyon guesthouse accommodating the two U.N. inspectors, a smiling North Korean official read aloud a letter informing them it was time to leave--immediately. The official volunteered that there were in fact two seats on the next Air Koryo flight from Pyongyang to Beijing.

The inspectors left with 14 discs of surveillance-video footage and 200 discarded seals. Thus did the North Korean regime escalate a showdown that began last October, when it confirmed U.S. intelligence reports that it was illegally building a new uranium-enrichment factory--another pathway to the Bomb.

The expulsion of the inspectors was the clearest sign yet that Pyongyang is intent on pushing the stand-off to the brink. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, lamented that the world now has "no clue" what Pyongyang might try to develop in coming months.

In fact, it does have a clue: North Korea, which the CIA believes already has enough fissile material for one or two bombs, is poised to extract enough plutonium from the spent fuel to produce four to eight more within a matter of months. It is unknown whether North Korea has ever actually constructed a nuclear weapon.

But given the relative simplicity of making a crude device, some U.S. analysts suspect that it has a bomb, albeit an untested one. The Bush Administration has done its best to counsel the world not to panic, making daily appeals to give diplomacy a chance. Secretary of State Colin Powell refused even to call the situation a "crisis."

But with each new North Korean gambit, that official insouciance sounds more off-key. Seemingly overnight, the U.S. begins the New Year eyeball to eyeball with a paranoid, ruthless regime hell-bent on obtaining nuclear weapons to complement an army the Pentagon rates among the most formidable in the world. And so, despite their stoic miens, White House officials are grasping for some way to yank North Korea back from the precipice and return everyone's focus to that other spoke in the axis of evil, Iraq. "Is it a distraction?" says a White House official. "Yes. It's a serious issue. Does it change what we're doing on Iraq? No."

Last week President Bush ruled out U.S. military action to take out Pyongyang's suspected nuclear arsenal but then pledged to "lead a coalition to disarm" Saddam Hussein, who isn't believed to possess one yet. Bush and his aides tried to draw a distinction between Iraq and North Korea by pointing to their record of defiance: though Saddam refused for four years to allow the world to check whether he was trying to obtain nuclear weapons, North Korea, until this recent bout of truculence, had at least frozen its plutonium process.

That argument glides over the reality that while Pyongyang has submitted to nominal international oversight since 1994, it cheated on its agreements and consistently restricted inspectors' access to key nuclear sites. Whatever its reasons, the Administration's strategy is to talk tough but give North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a slight opening--threatening sanctions, not military force.

"I believe the situation with North Korea will be resolved peacefully," Bush said last week. "It's a diplomatic issue, not a military issue." Critics slam the Administration for having provoked Kim with its bellicose, axis-of-evil rhetoric--"It's like yelling at a guy who's aiming a gun at you," laments a Pentagon official--and then downplaying the North Korean danger so as not to disrupt its timetable for a strike against Iraq. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher told TIME that the Administration "seems to have almost an obsession" with Saddam. "I'm concerned that we seem to be lurching toward war without taking into account what our priorities should be."

The White House insists that Iraq remains a greater menace than North Korea, in part because Saddam has already shown he is willing to use weapons of mass destruction. But some foreign-policy veterans, including Christopher, think North Korea poses the bigger strategic threat, given its more advanced nuclear program, its long-range delivery systems and its propensity to sell weapons to anyone who will buy them. Yet even if the White House didn't have the added complication of organizing a war against Iraq, its options for confronting North Korea would be limited.

In 1994, when the Clinton Administration demanded that North Korea shut down the Yongbyon reactor, the Pentagon drafted plans for strikes to take out North Korea's key nuclear-production sites. Pentagon officials say the plan has recently been reviewed and modified, but few believe any American President would ever authorize it. An attack on Pyongyang's nuclear facilities could spread lethal radiation over China, Japan and South Korea and trigger a hellacious North Korean counterattack.

The regime boasts a standing army of 1 million troops--the world's fourth largest--with an estimated 4.7 million more in reserve. It also keeps a massive store of artillery shells and hundreds of Scud missiles that it could load with biological and chemical agents and rain down on South Korea and the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed there. Some U.S. military officials believe that a conventional exchange with North Korea could result in as many as 1 million South Korean casualties. Even so, a senior Bush Administration official says, the chief impediment to U.S. military action is the possibility, however remote, that Pyongyang might try to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield.

Says the official: "You can't ignore the fact that nuclear weapons are a game changer." The Administration's attempts to ratchet up the pressure diplomatically have not produced much benefit. Last month the U.S. began circulating proposals for a policy of "tailored containment," under which U.S. naval ships would block North Korean missile exports--depriving the regime of one of its only sources of income--and the U.N. would impose economic sanctions against North Korea. Winning support for the idea will require high-level arm twisting.

China, which supplies the bulk of North Korea's oil, is wary of exacerbating the privations that have already sent thousands of North Korean refugees across the border. U.S. officials think, however, that China's leaders can be swayed to squeeze North Korea, given Beijing's concern that if Pyongyang definitively crosses the nuclear threshold, Japan and South Korea will be provoked to follow. The bigger headache for the U.S. has turned out to be its longtime ally the South Koreans, who have no interest in making life worse for their North Korean kin.

The South's President-elect, Roh Moo Hyun, has irritated Washington by vowing to renew Seoul's policy of "sunshine" engagement with the North. Last week Roh publicly criticized the U.S. containment strategy. "I am skeptical it will make North Korea surrender," he said. In any case, putting in place sanctions tough enough to inflict persuasive pain on North Korea would take months, giving Pyongyang time to successfully extract new nuclear-weapons material. So is there another way out?

South Korean officials are pushing the U.S. to negotiate a climb-down with Pyongyang; Kim, they believe, is desperate to end his country's isolation and would agree to give up his nuclear ambitions if the U.S. dangled the promise of normalized relations and pledged not to attack him. But so far, the Administration has refused to negotiate until Pyongyang disarms. Hawks in Washington warn that Kim may try to blackmail the U.S. into another agreement he has no intention of keeping.

So, how dangerous is North Korea? The answer has long been difficult to divine, given the insularity of the Hermit Kingdom and the erratic behavior of its leaders, first Kim Il Sung and now his son Kim Jong Il. At every turn since the beginning of the crisis last October, Kim Jong Il has repeatedly called Washington's bluff, ignoring warnings and raising the stakes. Kim chose not to buy more time by denying the U.S.'s evidence that he had started a secret uranium-enrichment program.

The U.S. and its allies halted fuel-oil deliveries to North Korea; at that point, instead of agreeing to abandon the uranium project, Kim got ready to fire up the Yongbyon complex, which the regime had mothballed under the terms of the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton Administration. And by removing the spent-fuel seals, opening the reprocessing plant and expelling inspectors, Kim has gone even further than anticipated toward building new bombs--and at a more terrifyingly rapid pace.

The quest for a nuclear weapon has obsessed the Pyongyang regime since the 1950s, when Kim Il Sung began working to amass an arsenal potent enough to deter a feared U.S. attack. Though Pyongyang has made gestures suggesting it was ready to make concessions in exchange for aid and security guarantees, neither Kim Il Sung nor his son gave up the raw material for bombmaking or renounced the desire to obtain the Bomb; in their mind, doing so would sap the country's bargaining strength and make the regime's survival dependent on its neighbors' goodwill.

Kim is shrewd enough not to court annihilation by using a nuclear device. "He is very knowledgeable about what goes on in the international scene," South Korean President Kim Dae Jung recently told TIME. And yet Kim apparently is convinced that he will someday go to war with the U.S. According to Kim Hyun Shik, a former professor at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, the North Korean leader watched the Gulf War closely and even ordered a film produced that analyzed the weak points of the U.S. military.

The conclusion: Iraq lost because it lacked the will to attack U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and explode gas and oil pipelines. He made his military officials watch the film to boost morale. But Lee Young Kuk, a former bodyguard to Kim, says his ex-boss "is afraid of the U.S. He knows he can't beat them." The CIA isn't sure the North Koreans have the skill to make a nuclear device small enough to load onto its missiles.

But if they do, the danger is great. Pyongyang wields a huge stash of short-and medium-range missiles, including at least 100 Nodong missiles capable of striking Japan. U.S. intelligence officials say Pyongyang wants to become the first rogue state capable of striking the U.S. homeland with a missile. In 1998 the North Koreans test-fired a three-stage Taepo Dong-1 rocket that landed in the Pacific Ocean.

The Pentagon believes that North Korea is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Taepo Dong-2, that could reach Alaska, Hawaii and possibly California. The North Koreans had pledged not to test-fire any long-range weapons until this year. If testing resumes, a U.S. military official says, Pyongyang may be able to target the continental U.S. with a nuclear warhead "within several years."

The U.S. has so far failed to devise a strategy to thwart Kim's ambitions before he realizes them. Many Korea watchers in Washington say the White House's rhetorically bellicose approach toward Pyongyang--underlined recently by Bush's declaration that "I loathe Kim Jong Il," made to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward--has heightened the regime's paranoia about a U.S. attack and accelerated its nuclear rush.

Says Derek Mitchell, who worked on Asia policy in the Clinton Pentagon: "People talk about North Korea being crazy, but it's not. It's purely rational for a nation with no assets being threatened by the world's major power to develop insurance against attack." Kim's moves also betray a mounting desperation. Some North Korean defectors believe Kim is trying to stockpile nukes before the U.S. can coordinate an attempt to topple him.

Other defectors say that few North Koreans would rise up to defend the regime if it came under threat. Since taking over upon his father's death in 1994, Kim has overseen a collapsing economy and a famine that killed more than 2 million people. The government cultivates a cult of personality around Kim--citizens are told to treat him as a demigod, and pictures of father and son hang in every public building in Pyongyang--but popular disgruntlement is growing, as North Koreans returning from China's boomtowns dispel any notion that life is better inside the Hermit Kingdom. There are even reports of rising dissatisfaction among the elite as the regime stumbles from crisis to crisis and corruption increases.

A U.S. intelligence source says a Washington-led embargo against Pyongyang would take time to loosen the regime's grip on power, since Kim has already shown that he's "willing to let a lot of people die off." But eventually sanctions might take their toll, as even top government officials and members of the security services began to feel the pinch. "If the regime can no longer maintain the lifestyles of [those] people," says the source, "it could be in serious trouble."

A hard-line containment policy, though, would also erode Washington's moral credibility, putting the U.S. in the position of starving a country into submission. Even if the White House figures a way out of the current standoff without resorting to sanctions or military force, the U.S. may at some point have to face the prospect of outright confrontation.

Administration officials concede that the White House may wind up engaging in a direct dialogue with the North Koreans, while never calling it that. But the U.S. will demand assurances that North Korea keep its commitments this time. If it doesn't, the White House may yet decide that, as with Baghdad, the only way to disarm the regime in Pyongyang is to change it.

--Reported by James Carney and Mark Thompson/Washington, Donald Macintyre and Kim Yooseung/Seoul, Andrew Purvis/Vienna and Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo



Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.


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