As North Korea accelerates the pace of its nuclear weapons program, the United States and its allies have limited options to prevent one of the world’s poorest and most erratic nations from becoming a nuclear power.
In a matter of weeks, faint hope that North Korea might be coaxed into voluntarily dismantling its nuclear facilities through multinational talks has all but evaporated.
The Bush administration appears to have ruled out any kind of preemptive strike on North Korea, which with its conventional artillery alone could inflict massive casualties on neighboring South Korea and the more than 30,000 U.S. troops stationed there. And with diplomacy failing, nonproliferation experts have begun to speak despairingly of the inevitability of a nuclear North Korea.
U.S. spy satellites have detected what could be the groundwork for an underground nuclear test around the city of Kilju, officials said Friday. There are other ominous signs as well. Last weekend, the North Koreans launched a missile into the Sea of Japan, possibly a new ballistic missile that could reach U.S. bases in South Korea. The main North Korean nuclear reactor at Yongbyon has been shut down in apparent preparation for the extraction of more plutonium.
“It looks like North Korea is intent on becoming a nuclear power, and the time is running out to stop it,” South Korean legislator Park Jin, a member of the National Assembly’s defense committee, said Friday.
The CIA has believed for some time that North Korea might have one or two nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang, the capital, announced Feb. 10 that it had nuclear capability. But it has not been officially deemed a nuclear power by the international community because it has not tested a device.
“The general working assumption is that they could test with relatively little warning if they choose to do so,” a U.S. official in Washington said Friday. The factors in their decisions probably would be “more political than technical.”
Among American policymakers, North Korea has long been known by the epithet “land of lousy options.” Never has it seemed to them more true, watching from the sidelines as Pyongyang puts its nuclear program on fast-forward.
During a previous nuclear showdown, when Bill Clinton was president, and another tense period in 2003, policymakers stared down the path of military action and blanched. Although there is no doubt that the United States and its allies would prevail in any contest, military analysts believe that North Korea could kill hundreds of thousands of people in South Korea and perhaps Japan before it goes down in defeat.
More recently, various ideas have been floated, including a quarantine to block potential North Korean export of nuclear materials and or economic sanctions.
But the United States and its allies would not be able to do anything like, for example, the naval blockade imposed during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 without the active cooperation of China. Most of North Korea’s trade today crosses the Yalu and Tumen rivers, which form the 800-mile border between the countries, and so far, China has been reluctant to put the squeeze on Pyongyang.
South Korea might be similarly loath to suspend joint projects in which considerable national prestige has been invested, such as its new industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong.
At the United Nations, any tough measures by the Security Council are likely to be vetoed by China or Russia.
In any event, policy analysts believe it is unlikely that the U.N. has greater clout with the recalcitrant North Korean leader Kim Jong Il than the other participants in the six-nation nuclear talks -- the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
“What’s the U.N. going to do? Pass a Security Council resolution saying that it’s a bad idea for North Korea to proliferate? I don’t want to say, ‘So what?’ but it’s pretty close,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “This may be one of those problems for which there is simply no good solution.”
The Bush administration is officially pushing for another round of six-party talks. But almost a year has elapsed since the last meetings in Beijing, making the process look, in the words of North Korean specialist Robert J. Einhorn, “like a futile course of action.”
“We should already have been exploring a Plan B,” said Einhorn, who negotiated with North Korea for the Clinton administration.
A senior State Department official said the administration wants to pursue the talks while strengthening such measures as the Proliferation Security Initiative, a multinational agreement to try to keep nations such as North Korea from exporting nuclear materials.
“There are certain other things we can do to bring pressure on North Korea,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It doesn’t require us to slam the door or set an arbitrary cutoff for the six-party talks. As long as they’re useful, we can leave them open.”
One of the last, best hopes is that China can persuade North Korea to go back to the negotiations. Thursday night, Bush spoke by telephone with Chinese President Hu Jintao to express his concern about recent events in North Korea. As the host of the six-party talks, China has considerable prestige invested in the process. There have been reports that Hu might personally intervene with a visit to Pyongyang, perhaps this month.
What little contact there is between the United States and North Korea has deteriorated into an unseemly exchange of insults. Shortly after Bush characterized Kim Jong Il as a “tyrant” during a news conference last week, the North Koreans denounced Bush as a “philistine” and a “hooligan.”
But many diplomats think there is still more the administration can do to bring North Korea back into negotiations. For example, the White House has been criticized for refusing to conduct one-on-one talks with the North Koreans, insisting that all contacts remain within the multilateral framework.
“The closer this gets to a crisis stage, the more pressure that will be on the Bush administration to forget the semantics game and talk to them directly,” said Scott Snyder, a senior researcher with the Asia Foundation in Washington.
“If they are going to get any deal that sticks, the Americans will have to talk to Kim Jong Il because that’s who we’re making the deal with. It can’t all be done through Beijing by remote control.”
Other suggestions have been to name a high-level special envoy or perhaps give more latitude to Christopher Hill, the energetic new assistant secretary of State for East Asian affairs who became the U.S. point man on North Korea last month.
The South Koreans and Chinese have indicated that they would like to see the United States put a more specific proposal on the table, laying out in detailed steps what economic and security incentives would be provided if North Korea dismantled its nuclear program.
The Americans “need to come up with positive reinforcement mechanisms rather than these negative signals that make the situation worse and worse,” said Moon Chung In, a South Korean academic and foreign policy advisor to his government.
A senior South Korean diplomat, Cho Tae Young, director of a Foreign Ministry task force on the North Korean nuclear issue, says Seoul does not believe all opportunities for diplomacy have been exhausted.
“We should not leave any stone unturned,” Cho said.
The problem is that time could be running out. If North Korea completes a successful nuclear test, the price of dismantlement may well become impossibly high and its neighbors will have to accept it as a nuclear power.
Fears are focused now on Kilju on the country’s northeast coast, where the Pyongyang regime is believed to have what it calls its Atomic Weapons Training Center as well as a missile base. U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring satellite imagery have recently detected activity in the Kilju area that suggests preparations for a nuclear test, a U.S. official said Friday.
The official cited “construction activity” and “flows of supplies” to a tunnel that could be used in an underground detonation. He emphasized, however, that data from overhead imagery is inconclusive and that the purpose of the construction could be shoring up or extending the tunnel for other purposes.
The New York Times reported Friday that the North Koreans appeared to have built a reviewing stand, prompting fears of an imminent test.
South Koreans have been more cautious in their assessments. They note that Kilju is a heavily populated area, making it a poor choice for a nuclear test. The Defense Ministry told reporters this week that Kilju had been under scrutiny since the late ‘90s for signs of unusual activity. Other South Koreans have said it is one of several sites in North Korea that could be used to test atomic weapons.
One senior South Korean official said a nuclear test is possible, but not necessarily imminent.
“If they do that, they will take away any shroud of ambiguity of the million-dollar question of whether they are a nuclear weapons country,” the South Korean official said. There will be a strong reaction from everyone, including my country.... They will be putting China, their greatest benefactor, into an untenable position.”
North Korea has been known for its elaborate bluffs, and the activity at Kilju could merely be a ruse. The United States gave North Korea hundreds of millions of dollars worth of food aid in 1999 in exchange for permission to inspect an underground site at Kumchang-ri suspected of being a nuclear facility. The tunnels were found to be empty.
Aside from a possible nuclear test, other troubling moves have been coming from North Korea. The launch of a new short-range missile Sunday came on the heels of congressional testimony by Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who said North Korea could make a nuclear warhead and attach it to a missile that could reach the United States. The Pentagon later backed away from those remarks.
Within the last month, North Korea shut down its 5-megawatt nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Nuclear experts believe the decision was probably a prelude to removing fuel rods from the reactor to extract plutonium to make nuclear arms.
If that happened, according to a recent report by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., North Korea could have 11 nuclear bombs by next year.
Times staff writers Sonni Efron and Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.