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U.S. poised to confront N. Korea

As the isolated regime warns of "total war," the United States stresses talks but says military action is possible.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 7, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration warned North Korea on Thursday that it had "robust plans for any contingencies" and though it has no intention of invading, the United States is capable of simultaneous military action there and in Iraq.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he believes a diplomatic solution can be found, and said the United States was telling its allies, including China, that they must share the responsibility for keeping North Korea from producing nuclear weapons.

But Powell, responding to sharp criticism from Senate Democrats, said that although President Bush favors a diplomatic solution to the North Korean crisis, he has not ruled out any options, including military action or sanctions.

Even as they praised Powell for his presentation to the Security Council on Wednesday on Iraq, and promised to increase the State Department's budget next year to conduct an assertive diplomacy around the world, Senate Democrats lambasted the administration for allowing the North Korean crisis to fester while it focused on Iraq.

"North Korea is a grave threat that seems to grow with each day that passes without high-level engagement," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "The president should stop downplaying this threat, start paying more attention to it, and immediately engage the North Koreans in direct talks."

At the White House, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said North Korea's "saber-rattling" was nothing new and only hurt its own cause. But he warned that "the United States is very prepared with robust plans for any contingencies."

The carefully balanced remarks followed two announcements from North Korea Wednesday that once again seemed designed to cause maximum anxiety in the United States just when the Bush administration was most preoccupied with Iraq -- as it was Wednesday with Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council.

First, North Korea said that it had restarted its Yongbyon nuclear power plant, believed capable of producing enough plutonium for perhaps six bombs in as soon as six months. Powell testified to the Senate that he was not certain that the reactor had in fact begun working, but that in any case, he expected it to be started up soon.

Then, later Wednesday, the North Korean foreign minister was quoted as saying that "pre-emptive attacks are not the exclusive right of the U.S.," a comment that was ominously interpreted by some as a threat of a first-strike nuclear attack. North Korean invective, always heated, has grown increasingly scorching of late, but its rhetoric is often subject to later revision. Nevertheless, Fleischer called the statement "a real concern."

North Korea's party newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, also was reported to have run a commentary warning that "when the U.S. makes a surprise attack on our peaceful nuclear facilities it will spark off a total war."

North Korea's latest provocative actions seemed to be a response to the announcement earlier this week that the Pentagon had placed 24 long-range bombers on alert, to be available in the Pacific to deter "opportunism" by the North Koreans.

Officials in Pyongyang also appeared angry with a statement by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday describing North Korea as a "terrorist regime" that is a threat to sell nuclear weapons technology or materials to terrorists and rogue nations.

Several senior administration officials said Thursday that they considered Rumsfeld's remarks too harsh. But they said the administration wants to send a clear message to Pyongyang not to make trouble on the Korean peninsula while the United States is preparing for a war against Iraq.

At a forum on the Korean crisis at the Washington Post, the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, said, "We are dealing with an unpredictable regime and a regime that seems to be moving along a ladder of escalation in terms of its actions. It is a matter of some concern.

"But what Secretary Rumsfeld has done, in putting those bombers on alert, is simply to reinforce our deterrent posture, to make sure that North Korea doesn't do anything adventurous or dangerous of a military kind," he said.

While the Bush administration clearly wants to downplay the North Korean crisis, analysts said, it's also walking a fine line. Ignoring North Korea's incendiary threats, particularly given growing criticism from Democrats and some Republicans, isn't a viable political option, they said.

Any move by Washington in the direction of military intervention would likely face resistance in Japan, South Korea and China, however, where engagement is strongly favored over confrontation. Obviously any North Korea missile launch or pre-emptive strike would quickly change opinions in neighboring countries, however.

The escalation of North Korea's nuclear activities -- which the administration argues is not a crisis -- sparked pointed questions Thursday in the Foreign Relations Committee.

"Even now the Bush administration claims the ball is in North Korea's court," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del. "North Korea says it is in our court. From where I sit, the ball is stuck in the net and somebody better go get it."

And Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., termed the administration's foreign policy as "designed neglect" of urgent issues not just in North Korea but elsewhere due to the exclusive focus on Iraq.

Powell bristled at that characterization, saying U.S. foreign policy is broad and proactive. He defended the administration's North Korea policy as an important engagement in multilateral problem-solving.

"North Korea is a more direct threat to South Korea and to China and to Russia than anyone else," Powell said. "Now, those nations are also encouraging us: "Quick. Quick. Talk to the North Koreans.'

"And we are prepared to engage with the North Koreans and we're prepared to talk to them. But what we can't find ourselves in the position of doing is essentially panicking at their activities and their demands."

Powell noted that Chinese President Jiang Zemin had said China would not accept the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. China and other North Korean neighbors must also work at forcing North Korea to comply with international norms, he said, noting that "they have a responsibility as well to persuade North Koreans that they have to behave correctly."

The central conundrum is an escalating series of North Korean moves to reject international nuclear agreements, produce fissile material and, analysts believe, develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons. U.S. authorities have discovered no simple way to reverse the actions, and have all but ruled out the use of force.

Time seems short to many nuclear specialists and Korea scholars who note that the Pyongyang government could produce enough high-quality plutonium for four to six weapons within a matter of months if it reclaims about 8,000 spent fuel rods stored at Yongbyon.

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