U.S. Said to Be Resigned to a Nuclear Korea

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration has concluded that it probably cannot prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and is focusing on managing the geopolitical fallout, informed Capitol Hill sources said Tuesday.

In closed briefings and private conversations with members of Congress over the last several weeks, administration officials have indicated that they expect North Korea to begin reprocessing its plutonium stockpiles soon, perhaps within a few weeks, the sources said. Once reprocessing begins, North Korea will be able to produce enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon a month.

A Senate staff member who is privy to the briefings said the administration was “preparing people up here for a de facto, if not declared, North Korean nuclear state and saying that this is something we can deal with through isolation, sanctions, deterrence and national missile defense.”

Resigned to the likelihood that North Korea may soon be making weapons-grade plutonium, officials “are trying to prevent Congress from leaping in alarm and either calling for preemptive military actions, which they don’t think offers them good options, or criticizing them for being surprised by the North becoming a nuclear power on their watch,” the staff member said. “They want to appear witting.”

Reached for comment on the reports, a senior official said the administration is planning for the possibility that North Korea will acquire more nuclear weapons. But he said the U.S. has in no way accepted this as an inevitable outcome.


“Resigned? Throwing up our hands? Working out how to accept them as a nuclear power? No, that’s not what we’re doing,” the official insisted.

No senator would confirm or deny the reports by the Capitol Hill sources. But in a statement responding to questions from The Times, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said the reports, if true, are “disturbing.”

“I’m amazed that we would sit back and let North Korea become a plutonium factory churning out the world’s most dangerous material and possibly selling it to the highest bidder,” Biden said.

“We need to treat this problem for what it is -- a crisis -- and listen to our allies who say we can still head it off if we just sit down and talk” to the regime in Pyongyang, he said.

In an interview with regional newspapers Monday, President Bush was asked how he would reassure Americans nervous about North Korea. He said the United States should accelerate its development of national missile defenses.

Although Bush has long argued the need for missile defenses to counter the threat of nuclear-armed “rogue” states, the timing and specificity of his statement were widely interpreted Tuesday as an implicit acknowledgment of the need for a fallback defense if North Korea proceeds to build a nuclear arsenal.

In the wake of North Korea’s interception of a U.S. reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan last weekend, Bush said using military force against North Korea is an option if diplomacy fails, although he said he continues to believe that a diplomatic solution is possible. The president had previously stressed that he had no intention of attacking or invading North Korea.

Defense officials said Tuesday that the U.S. is immediately sending 24 B-1 and B-52 bombers to the Pacific island of Guam, about 2,000 miles southeast of North Korea. “These movements are not aggressive in nature,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. “Deploying these additional forces is ... a deterrent.”

Davis refused to provide details, but the Reuters news agency reported that other defense officials said the deployment involves B-1s and B-52s. Those crews have been on alert for the possibility of the deployment for a month.

White House and State Department officials said Tuesday that they intend to formally protest North Korea’s “reckless” and “provocative” behavior.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that “at some point, North Korea has to get the message that it’s not going to get anything for taking further steps.”

But many independent analysts say the North Koreans are not getting the message because they have concluded that it is in their national interest to make as much plutonium as possible while the U.S. is preoccupied with Iraq. And some believe that U.S. diplomacy has hit a dead end now that Bush reportedly has vetoed any sort of bilateral negotiations with North Korea.

Therefore, unless the United States threatens military action against Pyongyang -- thus risking simultaneous war with Iraq and North Korea -- it must accept that North Korea may have a substantial nuclear arsenal within a year, said Robert Madsen, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Asia/Pacific Research Center.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) plans to chair hearings Thursday to explore what kind of diplomatic framework could be used to start a dialogue with the North Koreans. Administration officials do not wish to testify, so three experienced former diplomats will give their views, a Lugar aide said.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Pyongyang is engaging in a series of provocations “as a way of saying ‘pay me.’ ”

“The United States will not be blackmailed,” Fleischer said.

Joel S. Wit, a former State Department expert on North Korea, said that by ruling out bilateral talks, the White House had in effect torpedoed diplomacy even before Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s five-day swing through Asia last month.

“Whether they’ve given up or not, it’s too late for them to do anything at this point, because the North Koreans are going to start reprocessing,” Wit said. “But everyone [in the region] has figured out that the Bush administration is not serious about resolving this by diplomacy.”

The CIA has estimated that North Korea already has perhaps two nuclear weapons. That assessment remains controversial. But Stanford’s Madsen noted that the difference between a North Korea with two nuclear devices and a North Korea with 10 or more atomic bombs is crucial.

“If you have two nuclear weapons, you’re not an offensive threat to your neighbors,” Madsen said. With plutonium for 20 or 30 bombs, North Korea could afford to conduct a nuclear test, sell spare plutonium, blackmail its neighbors and even conduct an offensive strike and still have an arsenal left to deter attack, he said.

“What the administration has to decide is whether that difference is significant enough for us to risk a war now,” Madsen said.

The repercussions of a nuclear North Korea could be profound for Asia -- and the world.

A nuclear North Korea could prompt Japan to enhance its military capabilities so as to be able to launch preventive attacks on North Korea, a right the Japanese government has already asserted.

A nuclear North Korea “will mean domestic turmoil in South Korea, with a government desperately trying to find a way to live with the North and a silent majority that opposes that position,” Wit said. “It means a United States desperately and probably unsuccessfully trying to piece together a coalition in support of isolating Pyongyang, because severe doubts will persist about the Bush administration’s ability to pursue a logical and effective policy.”

Others cautioned against drawing any definitive conclusions about U.S. policy on North Korea based on what administration officials reportedly are telling members of Congress.

Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, noted that the administration’s line has shifted over the last two years as a result of tensions between those who want to hold their noses and make a deal with North Korea and those who seek a change in Kim Jong Il’s regime.

“You’re dealing with a hydra when you talk about Bush administration North Korea policy. It depends on which head of the hydra you’re talking to,” Eberstadt said. “My impression is that the administration is still overwhelmed with the Iraq question and hasn’t yet come to a coherent North Korea approach.

“If you asked, ‘Isn’t that a little late in the day?’ I’d have to say yeah,” Eberstadt added. “But I’m not sure this is the final word on it.”