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Experts Caution Against North Korean Attempts to Split US, Asian Allies

Experts have told a congressional committee that options are limited on how to deal with North Korea, but the United States must work harder with key allies in the six-nation talks to resolve the dispute over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

U.S. officials testifying before Congress this week have been unable to give lawmakers much new information, at least in public unclassified sessions, about the real threat posed by North Korea.

CIA Director Porter Goss told a Senate committee that North Korea's nuclear arsenal has grown, but offered no specifics, saying the information is classified.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says it is still impossible to know with certainty how large a North Korean arsenal may be.

Four experts testifying before a joint meeting of House East Asia, and Terrorism subcommittees examining options in dealing with Pyongyang also had little new information, but did express strong views about current efforts with the North.

North Korea announced last week it was leaving the six-party talks and that it has nuclear weapons.

Jon Wolfstahl of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Pyongyang's February 10 statement could be part of what he calls, the greatest nuclear bluff in history.

But he believes such statements must be taken seriously by the United States and its Asian partners in six-party talks, and suggests Washington should not rule out bilateral talks with Pyongyang within the larger negotiating framework.

"If North Korea refuses to accept the six-party format, U.S. officials should announce they will meet anytime, anywhere with a North Korean official empowered to make real progress," he said. "The Bush administration is right to keep other players involved, but it is wrong to reject any deviation from the six-party formula."

Mr. Wolfstahl adds, however, that the United States must continue to demonstrate to Pyongyang that it is fully prepared to handle any military contingency on the peninsula.

Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautions against making any deals with Pyongyang on bilateral contacts.

"It is essential to continue a multilateral approach, but to make it clear to Pyongyang that we will not cut a separate deal outside the six-party process," he noted.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, testifying for a Senate panel Thursday, had this description of U.S. efforts to pursue a diplomatic approach with the North.

"The track we are on with North Korea is very similar to the track that the government has been on for some time, it's been a diplomatic track, an attempt to work out with them some arrangements whereby their behavior would be appropriate instead of inappropriate for that part of the world," he said.

But Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute told a House committee that, while there is still some room for multi-lateral diplomacy, there should be little doubt about what he calls Pyongyang's ultimate objective, the reunification of the Korean peninsula under its control.

"Those who hope for a win-win solution to the North Korean nuclear impasse must recognize the plain fact that Pyongyang has never engaged in win-win bargaining," he said. "Pyongyang believes in win-lose solutions, preferring outcomes that entail not only DPRK [North Korea] victories, but also face-losing setbacks for its opponents. From the DPRK's perspective, win-win solutions are not only impractical, they are immoral."

Another witness, Robert Sutter, with the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, sees no good options at the moment, and little choice but to work with Asian partners in what will be a long-term process with an unpredictable North Korean leadership.

"You really have to do this in a regional context. You can't try to do this by yourself. If you do, you run the risk of being isolated, and your interests in Asia will suffer greatly," he added.

While experts at Thursday's House hearing said China continues to play a key role in the North Korean negotiations, many lawmakers have expressed skepticism about Beijing's involvement.