As Pyongyang on Tuesday rejected proposals to turn the Korean Peninsula into a nuclear-free zone, America and its allies pressed forward in their race against time to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.
On his current weeklong trip through Asia, Secretary of State James A. Baker III has given top priority to efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program. Baker and other Bush Administration officials are resorting to diplomacy, big-power politics and some concessions to North Korea as part of their campaign.
And some scholars, officials and other experts on Asia are even beginning to engage in some subdued talk about the potential use of force, if nothing else works to prevent Pyongyang from becoming a nuclear power.
“The very real danger of nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula is now the No. 1 threat to security in Northeast Asia,” Baker said in Japan on Monday. Other senior Bush Administration officials have been making similar public statements for more than a year, ever since the end of the Cold War reduced the Soviet military threat in the Pacific.
Baker is expected to press the Korean nuclear issue once again in Seoul, where he arrived Tuesday evening, and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney will be coming to Asia next week for further talks on the subject with Japanese and South Korean officials.
South Korean President Roh Tae Woo on Tuesday greeted ministers arriving for an Asian economic conference here by telling them that “countries in the Asia-Pacific region are required to positively cooperate to deter the North from its plan.”
The Bush Administration has launched a sudden flurry of public activity about the North Korean program--even though the United States has known about and worried about it for quite some time.
Over the last several years, Administration officials and other Asian experts have been warning that North Korea seems to be intent on developing nuclear weapons--and that if North Korea succeeds, both South Korea and Japan might well feel compelled to follow suit.
So far as can be known, there has been no dramatic or stunning new advance toward the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea. Despite the continuing efforts to bring it to a halt, though, the North Korean program at Yongbyun seems to be moving steadily forward--to the point at which Pyongyang could well be able to produce a nuclear weapon within two or three years.
In other words, one reason the Bush Administration has seized the issue now is the belief that time may be running out.
Another factor appears to be Iraq.
There is no direct connection between North Korea’s nuclear program and the one in Iraq. The programs are different. While Iraq acquired many of the components for nuclear weapons abroad, a senior State Department official said the North Korean program seems to be “largely indigenous.”
But the recent revelations of how close Iraqi President Saddam Hussein came to acquiring nuclear weapons has made U.S. officials acutely aware of how quickly such a program may proceed--and of the extent to which U.S. intelligence officials may underestimate the threat.
What does the United States intend to do? Baker’s current trip represents one approach. On his trip, he has been proposing the idea of some form of multinational initiative on North Korea.
State Department officials suggest that the major powers with interests in East Asia might all work together to persuade Korean President Kim Il Sung to halt his nuclear program.
“We will explore opportunities for cooperation among the United States, Japan, China, the Soviet Union and the two Koreas--opportunities that will support the north-south dialogue, help to ease tensions, facilitate discussion of common security concerns and possibly guarantee outcomes negotiated between the two Koreas,” one senior State Department official said this week.
He and other State Department officials flatly denied reports Tuesday in the Japanese press that the Bush Administration will call for some form of special conference among the four major powers and North and South Korea to discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
But Baker is now trying to enlist support from each of the major powers separately for help in stopping the North Korean program.
He had no trouble winning the support of Japanese officials, who are even more eager than the United States to prevent North Korea from acquiring the bomb. Japan’s help is particularly important because North Korea is hoping to obtain economic help from Tokyo to help shore up the ailing North Korean economy.
“The Japanese have been very firm in making clear to the North Koreans that there will be no normalization (between Tokyo and Pyongyang) as long as this problem remains unsolved,” a State Department official said Tuesday.
Winning China’s help may be trickier. Baker will be in Beijing this weekend and may discuss the American concerns about North Korea during his meetings with Chinese leaders.
Bush Administration officials insist that China is as eager as other countries to stop the nuclear program in North Korea, which is its old neighbor and wartime ally but which has always kept a certain distance and independence from Beijing.
“Just in the last month, the Chinese have made public statements on the occasion of the visit to China of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung that they (the Chinese) were opposed to nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula,” Assistant Secretary of State Richard H. Solomon told Congress two weeks ago.
But relations between the United States and China are so messy these days that if the United States were to seek concrete help from China in reining in its old ally, North Korea, the Chinese might seek to turn this request into a bargaining chip, seeking some favor or concession from the United States in return.
The United States and its allies have already tried making concessions of their own to North Korea. The Bush Administration announced this fall that it was withdrawing all nuclear weapons from South Korea. And President Roh pledged last week never to develop, store or use nuclear arms in his country.
(Roh on Tuesday requested China’s help to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program, presidential spokesman Lee Soo Jung said. The request occurred in a meeting between Roh and Qian Qichen, China’s foreign minister, the Associated Press reported.)
Over the last few months, there have been occasional suggestions that North Korea might be prepared to respond to efforts to curtail its nuclear plans. A writer for the weekly magazine Far Eastern Economic Review who visited Pyongyang in mid-October reported there were “hints that the Bush initiative (on nuclear disarmament) might make possible a breakthrough. . . .”