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Military Action Possible, U.S. Warns N. Korea

Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- North Korea took new steps toward reactivating its nuclear weapons program Monday as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned Pyongyang that the U.S. military could win a war on the Korean peninsula even while battling Iraq.

In Vienna, officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, the U.N. organization monitoring the North Korean nuclear program, said that they saw new signs that Pyongyang was moving ahead with the bomb-building program.

The officials said the North Koreans on Monday dismantled U.N. surveillance cameras and broke locks on a reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel rods at the sprawling Yongbyon complex. The move came after the North Koreans removed surveillance cameras and seals from a storage facility for spent fuel rods at the same complex over the weekend.

In Washington, Rumsfeld warned that if North Korea was resuming its bomb program out of a belief that the United States was distracted by a possible war against Iraq, “it would be a mistake.”

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“We’re capable of winning decisively in one [theater] and swiftly defeating in the case of the other,” he said. “Let there be no doubt.”

Rumsfeld added, however, that military action was not imminent, and that he had seen no evidence to suggest North Korea’s actions were timed to coincide with the approach of a possible war against Iraq.

Still, the likelihood of confrontation with North Korea seemed to grow over the weekend, with the North Koreans taking steps at Yongbyon -- where 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods are stored -- to restart their nuclear program.

The impoverished Stalinist regime is moving more quickly than U.S. officials had expected toward resuming a bomb-building effort that North Korea halted in 1994 in exchange for an international program of energy aid.

Pyongyang could have a handful of nuclear bombs by the second half of next year if it begins reprocessing the spent-fuel rods to acquire bomb-making material, U.S. officials and other experts say. Such a move would pose a dangerous new nuclear proliferation threat, and destabilize northeast Asia, already one of the most heavily armed regions of the world.

The plutonium reprocessing plant at Yongbyon could be ready to begin producing fissile material for bombs within a few months, said Mohammed Baradei, director general of the IAEA. North Korea was expected to finish removing the cameras and seals from the reprocessing site today, officials said.

Baradei, in an interview with CNN, described the situation as “rapidly deteriorating.”

He added that if the North Koreans restart the reprocessing plant, which was taken offline in 1994 under an agreement brokered by the United States, “then we [would be] in a pretty dangerous situation.”

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The IAEA views the events unfolding in North Korea as being just as serious and dangerous as those in Iraq, said Mark Gwozdecky, director of public information for the agency.

“This is every bit as important as Iraq -- they are different in so many ways, but they are sharing equal billing at the top of our priority list,” he said.

Two IAEA inspectors who live on the Yongbyon site saw the North Koreans cutting the seals and disabling the surveillance cameras Monday and alerted the Vienna headquarters. So far, the North Koreans have not asked the inspectors to leave, although without surveillance cameras, it is difficult for the monitors to do their job. The IAEA has little muscle unless, as was the case with Iraq, it is given specific authority by the U.N. Security Council to undertake intrusive inspections backed up by the threat of force.

Despite Rumsfeld’s warning, U.S. officials insist that they want to solve the problem not by military action, but through a diplomatic campaign by the United States and countries in northeast Asia. North Korea has a huge concentration of troops, artillery, tanks and other equipment along its border with the South near Seoul, and a military conflict could kill hundreds of thousands of people within its first hours, experts predict.

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Philip T. Reeker, a State Department spokesman, said the United States seeks “a peaceful resolution of the situation that North Korea has created by its pursuit of the nuclear weapons program.” However, he said that the United States would not make concessions because of the threatened moves to build a bomb, as the Clinton administration and allies did eight years ago.

“We will not give in to blackmail,” he said. “The international community will not enter into dialogue in response to threats or broken commitments, and we’re not going to bargain or offer inducements for North Korea to live up to the treaties and agreements it has signed.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell talked over the weekend and on Monday to officials in Britain, France, Russia, Japan, China and South Korea about North Korea’s latest moves, Reeker said.

Plunged into his first crisis only days after his election, South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun met Monday with outgoing President Kim Dae Jung about how to handle the North Korean situation.

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Some U.S. analysts noted that despite the North Korean moves, the regime has not yet actually resumed its nuclear program.

Joel Wit, an Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that until the North Koreans begin reprocessing the spent fuel, or eject the IAEA inspectors, they have not taken the final step. Yet he said he believed most officials in the North Korean regime favored resuming the nuclear program, and predicted that the North could have a handful of nuclear weapons by the latter part of next year.

He said he found it “shocking” that the United States would be willing to allow North Korea to build a bomb without trying to resume negotiations. “It serves the cynical purpose of pushing all the other countries in the region into our lap, to isolate North Korea,” he said. “And then, according to our cynical game plan, North Korea will collapse.”

Roh won last week’s election in South Korea on promises of using gentle persuasion to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. But North Korea’s recent actions threaten to strain his patience and might be a key test for the new president even before he takes office Feb. 25.

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“North Korea’s behavior pattern is difficult to understand. It was thought that the North Korean leadership would have been happier to see a progressive win the election and that there would be some cooperation with regard to the nuclear issue, but they are behaving in sharp contrast to expectations,” said Chung Ok Nim, an international relations specialist at the Sejong Institute in Seoul.

The North Koreans had informed the IAEA in Vienna that they would unilaterally remove the monitoring equipment, but it was widely assumed that they were bluffing, or that weeks would ensue before it happened.

“They are acting in a hasty and obnoxious manner,” said Song Young Sun, a North Korea watcher from the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. “They are really desperate to draw the United States into negotiations. They figure that the United States is in a hurry to go to war with Iraq and that they will have the best bargaining position now.”

Pyongyang on Monday repeated its demand for a pact with the United States that would guarantee that the North would not be attacked.

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“If the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula is to be settled properly, the U.S. should stop posing a nuclear threat to [North Korea] and accept [our] proposal for the conclusion of a nonaggression treaty between the two countries,” said Rodong Sinmun, the daily newspaper of the North Korean ruling party.

Richter reported from Washington and Rubin from Vienna. Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Seoul contributed to this report.


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