U.S. Urges Sanctions on North Korea

By Michael Abramowitz and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The White House pushed yesterday for aggressive new sanctions on North Korea, including measures to limit trade in military and luxury items, as Pyongyang's claim that it conducted an underground nuclear test defied the administration's efforts to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Japan, Russia, South Korea -- and, significantly, China, North Korea's closest ally -- joined the United States in condemning the reported test, giving the Bush administration hope that it might unify the international community against Pyongyang. But U.S. officials acknowledged uncertainty about whether that would translate into strict U.N. sanctions, given China's traditional reluctance to lean heavily on its ally.

There were questions yesterday about the strength and success of the reported North Korean explosion, but there was little doubt among White House officials, lawmakers and outside experts that the action added a volatile new ingredient to an already dangerous world environment.

President Bush, acknowledging he could not confirm that a nuclear test occurred early yesterday in North Korea, said that the claim was nonetheless a "provocative act" and that he is "committed to diplomacy." Noting that North Korea has transferred missile technology to Iran and Syria, Bush also seemed to draw a sharp line that he warned Pyongyang not to cross.

"The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action," Bush told reporters at the White House.

If the test is confirmed, North Korea will be the eighth member of the club of declared nuclear powers -- and one led by a reclusive Stalinist dictator known for cruelty and unpredictability.

Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on Asia, said the action could prod Japan to drop its non-nuclear position, encourage Iran to harden its stance in negotiations over its own reported nuclear program and make it difficult to stop North Korea from marketing weapons to "undesirable parties."

The new claim also promised to renew scrutiny of the Bush administration's handling of North Korea and more generally its efforts to confront rogue states, just as crucial midterm elections are approaching. North Korea has ignored repeated warnings from the Bush administration on nuclear and missile testing.

Democrats quickly seized on the new North Korean claim as evidence that Bush has bungled his foreign policy, and even some conservatives voiced concern that the initial White House response yesterday was not stern enough.

"Unfortunately, on the Bush Administration's watch, North Korea's nuclear arsenal has grown to as many as a dozen bombs," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement. "Distracted by Iraq and paralyzed by internal divisions, the Bush Administration has for several years been in a state of denial about the growing challenge of North Korea, and has too often tried to downplay the issue or change the subject."

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the majority whip, said of the Democrats: "It doesn't make any difference what [Bush] does, they just come out and trash him." McConnell said in an interview that he hopes that China might be encouraged to sign on to a plan for tough sanctions on North Korea, noting a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement that said Pyongyang "defied the universal opposition of international society and flagrantly conducted the nuclear test."

"For China, that's pretty tough language," McConnell said, echoing a statement voiced privately by Bush administration officials.

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