While the Bush administration's focus on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction has overshadowed the problem posed by North Korea's nuclear program, U.S. officials have emphasized their ability to respond to any potential hostile action by North Korea. Presidential spokesman Ari Fleisher declared Thursday, the United States is "very prepared" for any contingencies in North Korea. Nevertheless, some analysts worry that Pyongyang is trying to use the Iraqi issue to its own advantage.
On the day that world attention was trained on Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations and his presentation of evidence of Iraq concealing its weapons of mass destruction, North Korea announced it is reactivating its Yongbyon nuclear facility.
The plant was deactivated under a 1994 accord with the United States that was aimed at halting North Korea's nuclear weapons program. North Korea says Yongbyon is being restarted to produce electricity. But there are suspicions in Washington that Pyongyang may be preparing to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods stored at Yongbyon in an effort to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Several analysts have commented North Korea is worried it will be targeted after the United States finishes dealing with Iraq. Korea specialist Gordon Flake says Pyongyang is trying to take maximum advantage of the period before an attack on Iraq.
"In other words," he said, "they do not want Washington to have the luxury of setting the schedule here: 'North Korea, please be quiet. Stay in your box, until we are done with Iraq, and then we'll deal with you later.'"
Mr. Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington, said "for them, the most opportune time is before an Iraq attack or even in the beginning days of any conflagration in Iraq," he said. "For example, if one presumes that North Korea intends to break out on the nuclear front and declare itself a de-facto nuclear nation, for them to do so the ideal time would be the first day of any war in Iraq."
Mr. Flake says that with every attempt by the Bush administration to put off a crisis with North Korea, Pyongyang feels more emboldened to further provoke a crisis in its pattern of brinksmanship diplomacy.
Joel Wit, a Northeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says North Korea's actions have been predictable. And he says Pyongyang may take other defiant actions if the war with Iraq grows more imminent. For example, Mr. Wit says North Korea could end its moratorium on missile tests or could make some unusual military moves with its conventional forces.
"There is no reason why North Korea is going to wait until the U.S. deals with Iraq before doing all of these steps," he said. "I mean, if I was North Korea, I would be doing all of this before the U.S. was done dealing with Iraq. And indeed, it may not be too much to predict that on the day the war in Iraq starts, North Korea may start reprocessing [its spent fuel rods]. And that way, it will slip across the finish line."
The United States has said it is willing to talk with North Korea, but the North must reverse course and stop its nuclear program. Pyongyang wants Washington to sign a non-aggression treaty, but the United States rejects that demand, saying it has no intention of attacking North Korea.
Korea specialist Bill Drennan says North Korea perceives it has been presented with a huge opportunity. "This is as good as it is going to get in terms of the world's only superpower being diverted at least partially into other areas of concern," he said.
Mr. Drennan, the deputy director of research at the United States Institute of Peace, says North Korea is taking advantage of that opportunity to develop its nuclear weapons capability as much as it can. But he says North Korea should not think it makes itself more secure by building a nuclear arsenal.
"They are playing an incredibly dangerous game. And they are provoking the world's only superpower in a way that threatens our fundamental vital interests," he said. "A nuclear armed North Korea would be a clear and present danger to the vital interests of the United States, and they should not assume that a United States, diverted to a certain extent, to a major extent admittedly by a war with Iraq, is incapable of addressing this gross kind of challenge from North Korea, because if we have to, we can marshall those resources," he said.
Nobody wants a war on the Korean peninsula, Mr. Drennan says. But he notes that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has expressed confidence the United States has the capability to do what it must to protect American interests, including military action in two areas of the world at the same time.