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In Pyongyang, Raising the Ante

N. Korea's Goal May Be Acceptance of Its Nuclear Programs

By Glenn Kessler and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page A21

By heightening the stakes in a two-year standoff, North Korea has signaled it has little interest in giving up its nuclear programs for relatively minor upfront concessions from the Bush administration -- and appears to be gambling that the United States and its allies will ultimately accept the idea of a nuclear North Korea.

At each step of the way in the crisis, the government in Pyongyang has carefully crossed once-unthinkable thresholds, with little apparent consequence. North Korea's announcement yesterday that it has nuclear weapons and is withdrawing from negotiations on its nuclear programs has once again upped the ante. But it appears unlikely it will jar the United States and its allies to take any dramatic actions, analysts and officials said.

_____Nuclear Path_____
An overview of North Korea's current nuclear and missile capabilities and a chronology of events and diplomacy since 2001.
_____N. Korea's Statement_____
Full Text: The full statement by North Korea's foreign ministry on its nuclear program, as released in English by the North Korean news agency KCNA.
_____World Opinion_____
Nuclear North Korea Is 'Crisis From Hell,' by Jefferson Morley
_____More Coverage_____
N. Korea Declaration Draws World Concern (The Washington Post, Feb 11, 2005)
U.S. Rejects N. Korea's Demand for Bilateral Talks (The Washington Post, Feb 11, 2005)

Indeed, the North Korean statement is less about nuclear bombs -- nations generally announce they have joined the nuclear club by conducting a successful test -- than a calculated diplomatic gambit designed to gain a new edge in the debate over its nuclear ambitions.

Regional resistance to any military strike has mounted in the past year -- and to many in the region, the idea of a nuclear North Korea, analysts say, is simply not as shocking as it once was. This has limited Washington's leverage, and Pyongyang appears to be trying to prod Washington to significantly sweeten its offer.

North Korea has sought billions of dollars in energy, economic aid and loans in exchange for giving up its nuclear ambitions. The United States has insisted that it will give North Korea no rewards until it fully discloses its nuclear programs and allows independent verification of its report within three months -- and then has only hinted at what might follow.

Although the United States has been joined in the talks by four of North Korea's neighbors, unity among the five nations has been fitful. China and South Korea in particular have complained that the Bush administration has not shown enough flexibility. Just last week, the administration dispatched two key officials to Asia to bolster its position by displaying what it asserted was new intelligence showing nuclear dealings between North Korea and Libya.

But China, host of the six-party talks that also include Russia and Japan, appears eager to avoid economic sanctions or other measures that could lead to the collapse of North Korea, something that could spill millions of refugees across the Chinese border. In South Korea, the ruling party faces a tough election in April and is discussing a possible presidential summit in Pyongyang in an effort to bolster its electoral prospects.

In the United States, North Korea's statement appears certain to reopen debate within the administration, which throughout Bush's first term was bitterly divided over North Korea policy. As recently as Wednesday, U.S. officials had confidently told members of Congress that the talks, which last took place in June, would restart in early March. Some key advocates of a low-key diplomatic approach had been convinced they had the upper hand in the internal debate.

"This will make our job easier," said an administration official who favors a tougher approach. "North Korea is supporting the hard-liners' well-earned derision of this whole process."

But analysts said the United States has a dwindling set of options. There is little sentiment within the administration for making concessions to North Korea. If the talks do not resume, the administration could face a tough struggle to get the issue before the U.N. Security Council, where China holds a veto. In the past week, the administration has concentrated its focus on Iran's nuclear programs, which it also wants to bring before the Security Council.

"There aren't good options here," said Charles L. Pritchard, a Brookings Institution fellow who until August 2003 was a special envoy for the North Korea talks. "They still have Iran on their hands, and I don't think they can take North Korea on in a confrontational manner."

In recent weeks, North Korea had sent signals that it was carefully watching Bush administration statements for a "change in tone." President Bush, who three years ago called North Korea part of an "axis of evil," was muted in his statement about North Korea in last week's State of the Union address. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her confirmation hearings, labeled North Korea one of six "outposts of tyranny" -- a remark that Pyongyang repeatedly cited yesterday.

Some administration officials noted that, in declaring it would indefinitely suspend participation in the talks, North Korea also said it still has the "ultimate goal" of a denuclearized Korean peninsula and would "solve the issues through dialogue and negotiations." They said it is a hopeful sign that North Korea intends to return to the talks.

But other analysts said that language may have been aimed at China and South Korea, giving them one more reason to sidestep a confrontation. The Bush administration first tried to persuade China in July 2003 to allow the issue go to the Security Council, but the Chinese insisted that the six-party negotiating track must first run its course.

"There has been a conscious strategy of having slight ambiguity about where they are going," said Robert J. Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "What the North Koreans are trying to do is give proponents of diplomacy a sign that not all is lost."

An Asian diplomat who has discussed North Korea with the Chinese said Beijing might step up diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang to return to the talks but would resist taking tougher actions. Because North Korea has not conducted a nuclear test, the diplomat said, China can continue to maintain that it is not sure if the North has succeeded in building an atomic bomb.

So far, brinkmanship has worked well for the North Koreans. To date, its various incendiary declarations leading up to yesterday's announcement have done little to hurt it. North Korea has kicked out international weapons inspectors, withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, publicly claimed to have reprocessed spent fuel rods into plutonium and, in 2003, privately threatened U.S. diplomats that it might test a nuclear device. Every time a red line appears to have been drawn, North Korea has crossed it without penalty.

In fact, it has enjoyed the opposite reaction. Its economic ties have flourished with both China and South Korea, and even the European Union has opened in Pyongyang an extension of its Seoul-based chamber of commerce. Recent visitors to the North Korean capital talk of more cars in the streets and improvement projects underway for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's 63rd birthday next week.

North Korean officials may have concluded that under the current negotiating path there was little chance of a deal that would ensure the government's survival, said John Green, director of the Asia practice at Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. "It was hard to imagine the Bush administration accepting anything short of regime change," he said.

Faiola reported from Tokyo.

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