U.S. Plays Down North Korean Move

By Glenn Kessler
U.S. Plays Down North Korean Move
Saturday, January 11, 2003

North Korea's decision to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was greeted yesterday as a regrettable but expected development by a Bush administration deeply split over how to respond to the escalating crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Some senior officials are counseling careful engagement, and others are urging complete isolation that would lead to the crumbling of the North Korean regime. The "very dramatic tensions" within the government have led to near paralysis in policymaking, one official said.

For the moment, officials have settled on a tack of trying to break what they consider the usual cycle of North Korea's relations with the United States -- in which the regime acts badly and then wins concessions -- by refusing to express all but perfunctory concern over the North Korean action. But this approach has been opposed by North Korea's neighbors and has badly ruptured relations with South Korea, a longtime ally of the United States.

"We're not going to be intimidated. We're not going to be put into a panic situation," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday. The government in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, understands "it is only through compliance and not through defiance that they will be able to move forward with their needs, security and otherwise," Powell added.

Yet several officials are privately skeptical that the tough line can be held for much longer before the administration, under pressure from its allies, will have to offer a more positive vision of its relationship with North Korea. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday that there has to be "a light at the end of the tunnel" for the North Koreans. "North Korea must have at least a glimpse of what their prospects might be" under a deal with the United States, he said.

The crisis began in October, when North Korea admitted having a secret program to enrich uranium, which could be used for nuclear weapons. The Bush administration, over the objections of Japan and South Korea, pushed for an immediate suspension of fuel oil deliveries to North Korea. In response, North Korea last month ousted international inspectors and moved to restart a plutonium facility that had been closed under a 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration.

Many U.S. officials appear to have decided that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is behaving like a madman to obtain concessions. One official with access to intelligence said much of the clandestine intelligence supports the theory that he ultimately wants to negotiate a deal to win rewards from the West.

But, the official added, intelligence analysts are beginning to argue that Kim is intent on acquiring nuclear bombs as soon as possible. He said it is possible that both theories are correct -- that Kim will accept a deal but that, at the same time, he will undertake a crash program to acquire the weapons as a fallback if the administration continues to play hardball.

North Korea's announcement yesterday -- the first time any nation has withdrawn from the treaty, the key international regime for halting the spread of nuclear weapons -- was denounced by many nations, including its old allies, China and Russia.

But the International Atomic Energy Agency, which earlier this week gave North Korea "one last chance" to adhere to its nuclear commitments, said it will not immediately refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council. Britain and France, however, said the time has come to refer the matter to that United Nations body for action.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung said "the North's withdrawal from the NPT brought the situation on the Korean Peninsula from bad to worse by one step."

North Korea said the withdrawal was effective immediately, since it had previously suspended a threatened withdrawal, in 1993, after striking a deal with the Clinton administration. But IAEA and U.S. officials said yesterday that they regard Pyongyang's announcement as the start of a required 90-day countdown to resignation from the treaty.

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