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'No Easy Way Out for N. Korea Nuclear Problem' say Experts - 2003-01-14


The Bush administration has several options for trying to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem. But analysts say none of those options are especially good ones.

President Bush says the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea and will use diplomacy to resolve the dispute over that country's decision to resume its nuclear program.

But American foreign policy specialist Ivo Daalder said it may be too late for diplomacy, especially if the United States is not willing to make threats or concessions.

"And the later it gets, the more you in fact will have to put on the table in order to get a deal," he said. "And the administration that has excluded carrots and excluded sticks - this is an administration that continuously emphasizes that there won't be a preemptive strike, that there won't be an invasion, that the North Koreans don't have to worry about military force, but of course we won't sign a non-aggression pact - is also emphasizing that there are no carrots. Under that circumstance, there is no deal."

Mr. Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that means Washington is essentially saying it is willing to put up with North Korea having nuclear weapons for the time being and will deal with it after dealing with Iraq.

Mr. Daalder adds that the U.S. negotiating position is undermined by Washington's recent withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

"One of the consequences of withdrawing from the ABM treaty is that it doesn't give you a very high moral platform to stand on in order to object to what is being done on the NPT," he said.

Journalist and Korea specialist Don Oberdorfer is also skeptical that diplomacy will work in getting North Korea to reverse itself by halting its nuclear program and allowing the return of international weapons inspectors.

Pyongyang's decision to restart the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, expel the inspectors and withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty followed a visit in October by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly. At that meeting, Mr. Kelly presented U.S. evidence that North Korea was secretly working on producing nuclear weapons, in violation of its commitments.

Mr. Oberdorfer, now with the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, says when he visited Pyongyang a month later North Korean officials told him they were willing to abandon their uranium enrichment program in exchange for a face-saving way out, specifically a non-aggression agreement with Washington.

Instead, rhetoric from both sides intensified, and Mr. Oberdorfer says the North Koreans decided the only way to ensure their security was to continue their nuclear weapons program.

"I think they're going straight for a nuclear option. I don't expect them to stop," he said. "I think it's possible that the international community, led by the United States and perhaps others could persuade them to change course, but I think it's much more difficult than it was earlier this fall. And I would say the odds are somewhat against it."

Mr. Oberdorfer says the United States would have to enlist the services of someone with senior status in order to convince North Korea that Washington takes the matter seriously and is sincere in its effort. As an example, he points to former President Jimmy Carter's meeting in Pyongyang with the late leader Kim Il Sung that began the process that led to the nuclear accord signed in 1994.

A specialist on U.S. defense strategy at the Brookings Institution, Michael O'Hanlon, says eventhough the administration does not plan military action against North Korea, military options must be assessed. But he says none of them are good.

Mr. O'Hanlon rules out what he calls strategic pre-emption - starting a war to overthrow the North Korean government. He says that would result in hundreds of thousands of casualties. He also rules out waiting for North Korea to attack and then acting in defense of the South. The South Korean army, with U.S. support would be able to defend against a North Korean attack, Mr. O'Hanlon says, but that would mean letting the North set the pace and would result in even larger costs.

Mr. O'Hanlon says the only military option that might be feasible is what he calls tactical preemption - bombing the Yongbyon nuclear facility.

"There are even problems with this however, starting with diplomacy, in that South Korea has no interest in this option right now," he said. "And we certainly cannot do this sort of thing without South Korea's acquiescence, because the most natural North Korean response to this sort of an attack would be a proportionate or disproportionate attack against Seoul with artillery and with rocketry."

International relations professor Jae Ho Chung, from Seoul National University, says a tactical pre-emptive strike by the United States would be very unfortunate. Professor Chung says the U.S. government considered that once before.

According to the 1994 estimate, when the Clinton administration was actually contemplating surgical air strike on the Yongbyon facility, at that time the assumption was if the preemption could be completed within 90 days, the estimate on the part of Washington at that time was the casualties for the [South] Korean army would be like a half million and for the U.S. military would be 52,000, and the total cost would be $61 billion.

The director of Northeast Asian policy studies at the Brookings Institution, Richard Bush, says one recent positive development is China's offer to host talks between the United States and North Korea. Mr. Bush, who is not related to the president, says China's offer may give North Korea a face-saving way to work toward resolving the dispute with Washington.

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