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Experts: N. Korea's Nuclear Program Admission is Evidence it Seeks Rapprochement with US - 2002-10-23

When President Bush meets with the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea this week, he is expected to focus on the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and how it can finally be shut down. Earlier this month Pyongyang admitted to having a secret uranium enrichment project for building nuclear bombs, in spite of a 1994 agreement calling for an end to such programs. Some analysts believe Pyongyang's admission is a bid to avoid armed conflict and resume negotiations with the United States.

President Bush is working with other countries to solicit their help in pressuring North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to discard the country's nuclear weapons program.

"We view this very seriously. It is a troubling discovery and it is a discovery that we intend to work with our friends to deal with," said Mr. Bush. "I believe we can do it peacefully. I look forward to working with people to encourage them that we must convince Kim Jong-Il to disarm for the sake of peace. The people who have the most at stake, of course in this posture, are the people who are his neighbors."

Earlier this month, the United States revealed that North Korea had admitted to secretly building a uranium enrichment program in violation of the 1994 agreement.

Some analysts see North Korea's confession as sending out a signal that it does not want a military confrontation with the United States and prefers to reopen dialog.

Robert Gallucci, currently the dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, was the chief negotiator of the accord that provided aid in return for Pyongyang's promise to halt its nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Gallucci told a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the North Korean government wants a closer diplomatic and economic relationship with the United States.

"I assume that the North Koreans want at least what they have said they wanted all along. They want a certain diplomatic and political recognition and they want, of course, an economic opening that will help address extraordinary economic problems faced by the regime," he explained. "The regime wishes to survive and this is a mechanism by which to do it."

President Bush has backed away from Washington's previous policy of tentative engagement with North Korea, saying it is part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran.

North Korea is the world's only Communist dynasty, and has faced a series of catastrophic famines because of crop failures, droughts and flooding.

The two Koreas have still not signed a peace treaty since the Korean War ended in 1953.

Former assistant U.S. secretary of state for nonproliferation, Robert Einhorn, said, while he does not believe North Korea has produced a nuclear bomb with its recently revealed uranium enrichment program, the country probably has used plutonium to build a small number of atomic weapons.

"Does North Korea have nuclear weapons today? From its uranium enrichment program I am fairly confident in saying no. It is very unlikely they have produced weapons from highly enriched uranium. From plutonium it is very possible," said Mr. Einhorn. "The U.S. intelligence community has consistently estimated since the early 90s that North Korea may have separated enough plutonium to produce one or two nuclear explosive devices."

According to Kurt Campbell, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific, the Bush administration is not likely to wage war on the Korean peninsula because any such conflict would result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans.

"These military options are extraordinarily unpalatable. Unlike Iraq where if you are clever and you are smart and you think strategically, it is possible to contemplate a military action that does not have horrific corollary effects through your friends in the region," he said. "It is impossible to do so with North Korea. Any potential military conflict would be a devastating consequence for South Korea and potentially our friends in Japan as well."

North Korea has offered to discuss its nuclear weapons program through dialog with the United States.

Top U.S. officials have not accepted the offer, saying the administration is reviewing all options regarding North Korea.