North Korea is on a U.S. government list of state sponsors of terrorism. It is accused of sponsoring terrorism against South Korea. People are concerned North Korea, with nuclear and ballistic missile technology, could pose a threat to the rest of the world.
In his 2002 State of the Union address, four months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush threw the spotlight on three countries he accused of being significant perpetrators of terrorism, Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
"States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger," he said.
President Bush said one of Washington's greatest fears is that these countries could provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists or terrorist groups. "They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies, or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic," he said.
VOA's Korean Service recently interviewed the highest-ranking North Korean defector to South Korea, Hwang Jang Yop. Mr. Hwang left North Korea in 1997, after serving as secretary of international affairs for the ruling Labor, or Communist, Party. He says North Korea knowingly carried out at least two terrorist acts against South Korea in the 1980's. He adds that he has no doubts Pyongyang would carry out whatever terrorist act it could in the future.
"Yes, they will do it, if the opportunity comes, and if it is in their interest," he said. "The Communists would use every means and method. They do not think terrorism is bad."
Former top U.S. negotiator with North Korea Robert Gallucci said the possibility of Pyongyang working with terrorists was one of Washington's main concerns in the early 1990's. In 1994, after intense negotiations, Ambassador Gallucci and the North Korean side signed an accord, known as The Agreed Framework, which froze Pyongyang's plutonium-based nuclear weapons program.
The former U.S. negotiator says the North Korean plutonium program could have developed into what he described as a substantial size, and if left unchecked, would have given the country an estimated 30 nuclear weapons a year.
"So, our concern was obviously not only for the security of South Korea, Japan and the United States, from a North Korean nuclear weapons program of this size, but that they would sell it, or transfer the material or weapons," said Mr. Gallucci. "And the worst that could happen would be to transfer it to some terrorist group, that we would really not have a defense against, an unconventional delivery, or a deterrent, because terrorists often don't mind dying for their cause. So, this was, as long ago as a decade ago, was on our minds."
Ambassador Gallucci says, at that time, the U.S. government believed that North Korea had enough nuclear material for one, or possibly two weapons. Now, though, he says, the situation has changed.
U.S. officials said North Korean officials acknowledged a uranium-based program in October 2002, although Pyongyang subsequently denied it. And a private American delegation that visited North Korea in January said North Korean officials told them Pyongyang had re-started its previously frozen plutonium-based program.
"As we look at it now, we must be mindful that the North Koreans have been exporting ballistic missile technology and components, when no other country on earth is doing that, because, presumably, they [the North Koreans] need the money," he added. "We asked the rhetorical question, why would we expect North Korea to exercise restraint and good judgment, when it comes to fissile material, when they don't do it with ballistic missile components? I mean, the missile that the Pakistanis have to deliver their nuclear weapons - the medium-range ballistic missile, they call the Ghauri - it's a [North Korean] Rodong. The Iranians have a ballistic missile that finally will reach Israel, and we think they have a nuclear weapons program. They call it the Shahab-Three. It is a Rodong. So, when we have expressed this concern about what the North would do about fissile material, we have reason to."
Since last year, the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan have been negotiating with North Korea, in hopes of convincing Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Despite concern that North Korea could transfer nuclear material to terrorists, Natalie Goldring, executive director of the University of Maryland's Program on Global Security and Disarmament, says she does not feel that Pyongyang would take such a step for fear of reprisals.
"If North Korea were to sell nuclear materiel or nuclear weapons to a non-state actor, I believe that would signify the end of the regime, as well," she said. "Even those of us who are most cautious about engaging militarily with North Korea would probably stand back and say, this is across the line, if North Korea started selling nuclear material or nuclear weapons, themselves, to non-state actors."
Ms. Goldring says, if North Korea launches a nuclear weapon or transfers nuclear-weapons material to another country or other agents, she would see that as an act of last resort, by a leadership that feels it has nothing left to lose.