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North Korean Nuclear Weapons Program Shocks Official Washington - 2002-10-18

North Korea's acknowledgement of a secret nuclear weapons program has sent shock waves through official Washington.

The initial reaction from the administration was low-key. A White House spokesman said the president found North Korea's admission "troubling, sobering news."

At an appearance for Republican candidates in Atlanta, Mr. Bush chose to focus his public remarks on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. "It is now up to the free nations of the world to show some courage and backbone and disarm him," he said.

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States would consult with its allies before deciding on what to do next. "It is a very serious matter," he said. "We have called on North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons programs in a verifiable manner. We will watch and see if they do that and at the same time, we are consulting and discussing with friends and allies what sort of steps we should take."

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that he believes North Korea already possesses a small number of nuclear weapons, even though that has not been confirmed by U.S. intelligence officials.

Mr. Rumsfeld also had a skeptical response to a suggestion that international weapons inspectors be sent to North Korea. "Now, what you are asking is, is it appropriate for inspectors? They have just said they are violating it," said Donald Rumsfeld. "They are not even denying that they are violating it. They have admitted that they are violating all four of those agreements. What does one inspect when they are already stating for the world that that is their position?"

On Capitol Hill, members of Congress from both parties have long doubted North Korea's commitment to stopping its nuclear weapons program. Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is among a group of lawmakers pressing the Bush administration to now make North Korea a foreign policy priority. "The North Korean nuclear threat is just as serious as the threat posed by Iraq," said Congressman Markey. "We are joining on a bipartisan basis to urge President Bush to make a strong and vigorous response."

But not everyone agrees with that assessment. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott says while North Korea is a concern, the immediate threat is Iraq.

Nevertheless, foreign policy analysts predict that North Korea could move to the top of the administration's list of priorities very quickly.

Larry Niksch monitors East Asian security issues for the Congressional Research Service here in Washington. "So I think we are headed towards a very, very intense situation with North Korea, possibly even before we begin military operations against Iraq," he said. "But certainly, immediately after the Iraq issue is settled."

But other experts caution that the Bush administration already has its hands full with Iraq and the war on terrorism.

"It is very difficult to imagine that the administration is going to pursue continuing actions against al-Qaida, prosecute military action against Iraq and simultaneously engage in military action against North Korea," said Scott Snyder, an analyst with the Asia Foundation in Seoul. "Although I do expect to see stronger preemptive measures or coercive measures short of war in place, where there is a possibility that those types of measures could be effectively enforced."

On Thursday, CIA Director George Tenet heightened concern about the war on terrorism when he warned members of Congress that al-Qaida has reorganized and is now as serious a threat to Americans at home and abroad as it was before the September 11 terrorist attacks.