The Bush administration is deploying long-range bombers closer to North Korea as a deterrent, and it still wants to use diplomacy to resolve the dispute over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. But some Korea analysts say diplomacy is no longer a viable option, and they fear an armed conflict may be unavoidable.
If the U.S. reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan last weekend had a fighter escort, the North Korean fighter jets that intercepted it and trained their radar on it might have provoked a violent incident.
"The fact that it was alone basically prevented a crisis," says Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs, a Washington-based policy research organization. "My understanding is that the next time a surveillance plane goes up, it's quite likely it's going to have a U.S. fighter escort, something which of course would cause the North Koreans to think twice about trying this again."
Mr. Flake says it is only a matter of time before the escalating tension between Washington and Pyongyang and the possibility of a mistake by North Korea will result in armed conflict. He says last weekend's incident with the surveillance plane is just one example. "It just takes another provocation at that level that goes awry. A North Korean long range missile test that, like most missile systems, is very unreliable and falls short and hits Japan or South Korea," he said. "An over-zealous commander of a North Korean missile battalion or artillery battalion that decides to take a little preemptive action on his part. "
The latest crisis began in October when the United States confronted North Korea with evidence that Pyongyang has a nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement. Since then, North Korea expelled international inspectors, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, restarted a nuclear reactor and threatened to abandon the truce that ended the Korean War 50 years ago.
North Korea says its security is threatened by the United States and wants direct talks with Washington. The United States, which has maintained a large military presence in South Korea since the end of the Korean War, says it will not re-negotiate old issues, but is willing to talk with North Korea in a multilateral format. President Bush says diplomacy will work in resolving the standoff with North Korea. But he also says the military option remains open as a last resort. And the Defense Department is deploying 24 long-range bombers to Guam in a show of military strength.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said North Korea must understand it gains nothing by taking provocative steps such as threatening U.S. surveillance planes. "Our goal is through persistent diplomacy to make sure North Korea gets the message that it's been losing out already. It loses out with every one of these steps," he said.
East Asia security specialist Kurt Campbell said North Korea's provocative actions strengthen the argument of those who want to deal harshly with the North's nuclear program. "North Korea has taken step after step that's provocative, sending aircraft over the DMZ [demilitarized zone], planes to intercept an American reconnaissance aircraft over international airspace, launching missiles on the eve of the inauguration of the new president in South Korea, plus moving ahead very provocatively on a nuclear weapons program in North Korea," he said. "You add all those things up, and one of the consequences is that has undermined completely the moderates inside the United States who want to actually try to defuse this crisis."
Mr. Campbell, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Bush administration apparently hopes to postpone dealing with North Korea until after any war in Iraq. But he said North Korea is not likely to let that happen. "One of the things that we've learned after watching North Korea for decades is that they are averse to being put on the back burner," he said. "They much prefer to bring things to a boil. And I'm afraid, whether the Bush administration likes it or not, they're going to have to deal with North Korea rather than trying to put that aside for several months."
Mr. Campbell said he worries the situation is moving toward the very war the United States has sought to prevent on the Korean peninsula for the past five decades. "I think what we're seeing now is the United States opening the door for the possible attacks against Yongbyon and other North Korean facilities," he said. "My sense is that some of the thinking is based on the assumption that North Korea will not respond militarily. I'm not sure that's right."
Gordon Flake agrees that proposals for dialogue are no longer likely to work. He said North Korea has no incentive to wait for the United States to finish dealing with Iraq and is likely to take further provocative steps just before or at the onset of any military action against Baghdad.