Senior U.S. government analysts have concluded that North Korea is determined to proceed with its nuclear weapons program, even if it means giving up any chance for improved ties with the West.
There is probably no effective Western policy, they say, that can persuade the Pyongyang regime in the next few months to open its nuclear facilities to international inspections or head off North Korea’s precedent-setting withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Senior U.S. government specialists on North Korea do not view its drive for a nuclear bomb as some sort of bargaining chip that can be cashed in for economic or political rewards from the United States, Japan and South Korea. And, the U.S. government analysts have concluded, international economic sanctions will not succeed in stopping North Korea, either.
“We don’t see anything that’s politically feasible that would bring them to their knees,” acknowledged one senior U.S. official who has access to intelligence reports about North Korea.
Today is the deadline the International Atomic Energy Agency has set for North Korea to permit inspections of its nuclear facilities. North Korea has said that it has no intention of complying. If it does not, officials of the agency have said they will refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council.
The gloomy internal assessments about North Korea’s determination to become a nuclear power pose a severe challenge for the Clinton Administration. And the stakes are extraordinary.
If North Korea develops nuclear weapons, many Asia experts worry that eventually Japan and South Korea may feel compelled to follow suit. And if Pyongyang succeeds in withdrawing from the non-proliferation pact, it could blaze a path for other countries, such as Iran, which are now treaty signatories and have shown an interest in nuclear weapons.
The Administration, however, has not abandoned hope of stopping the North Korean nuclear program. U.S. officials have been conferring with such allies as Japan and South Korea, as well as with China--in this case a crucial intermediary--in a hurried effort to see if anything can persuade North Korea to change course.
But the pessimistic forecasts by U.S. analysts cast doubt on whether any of these efforts will succeed.
CIA Director R. James Woolsey testified recently that North Korea already may have enough material to build a nuclear weapon. Another senior U.S. government analyst warned this week that a North Korean reprocessing plant is producing additional material that could be used for nuclear weapons.
“There will be more plutonium available this summer,” this analyst said. “It will not be (material for) one or two devices, in the near term. It will be several more.”
One of the main questions facing the Administration is whether to support U.N. economic sanctions against North Korea as a means of pressuring the regime to abandon its weapons program. Secretary of State Warren Christopher testified in Congress last week that “there are sanctions that can be effective with them, even though they’ve been very isolated.”
According to U.S. government analysts, the troubled North Korean economy is getting worse. They estimated that it has been shrinking at the rate of 3% to 5% a year for two or three years.
Despite North Korea’s economic straits, however, U.S. analysts believe that it could survive an international embargo.
“We think the key to effective sanctions is China, and, in a purely practical sense, I don’t think the Chinese would be party to the kind of sanctions that would push North Korea to the wall,” one government analyst said.
He said China views North Korea as a buffer state and does not want to do anything to encourage political upheaval or a reunified Korea on its borders. Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen said publicly last week that Beijing is opposed to any U.N. sanctions against North Korea.
Over the last few years, China also has threatened to block U.N. actions against other nations, such as Iraq, and has later softened its opposition. But another senior U.S. analyst said this week that “unlike many of the (other) times where we have been up against the Chinese (at the United Nations), they have a real stake in this one.”
Another policy option under review by the United States and its allies is to offer North Korea some rewards for abandoning its nuclear program, such as economic benefits and a higher level of political contact with the West and some form of reduction in military tension on the peninsula.
South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung Joo proposed such an approach during meetings this week with senior Clinton Administration officials.
In defense of such an approach, Selig S. Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based private think tank, said:
“The way to deal with the north is to hold out the promise of clearly defined, carefully calibrated rewards linked to specific concessions on the part of Pyongyang. Pressure alone merely strengthens the hard-liners.”
He portrayed the North Korean leadership as engaged in a “sharp policy struggle” over whether to develop nuclear weapons.
While acknowledging that the belief outlined by Harrison remains “an alternative view” of North Korea, a senior U.S. analyst said government experts have concluded that there is no serious disagreement within the North Korean leadership about nuclear weapons.
“These guys (in Pyongyang) aren’t in the midst of a profound policy debate over which way to turn,” this official said. “There is no credible evidence that I am aware of that the north is using the nuclear program as a bargaining chip.”