The Bush administration, increasingly focused on the looming confrontation with Iraq, reacted calmly yesterday to North Korea's announcement that it would restart a nuclear power plant shuttered since 1994.
Several officials dismissed North Korea's announcement as the minimum counter move to a decision last month to cut off monthly heavy fuel oil shipments to North Korea. The United States pressed to end the shipments after it said North Korea had admitted to developing a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of previous agreements, part of a strategy to increasingly isolate the communist leadership in Pyongyang. Not only is the administration consulting with Japan and South Korea, two regional allies formally involved in North Korean issues, but U.S. officials are working with Russia and China as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin has privately suggested the creation of a Russia-China-U.S. trilateral group on North Korea, a prospect the administration is actively considering.
A senior administration official declined to say yesterday whether President Bush had any "red lines" that would spark U.S. action if North Korea stepped over them. "We will take a few days here to consult with others," the official said. "We will take our time and we will work through this whole issue. We've got very strong pressure points on North Korea."
The message suggested that the administration's policy on North Korea -- which sparked fierce interagency fights through much of the first two years of Bush's presidency -- has evolved into a single mantra: Make no waves while the focus remains on Iraq.
The consensus in the administration on dealing with North Korea is "remarkable to me," said another official involved in previous interagency fights. "Everyone understands the president doesn't want 15 crises on his plate."
The stance is striking because several administration officials were fierce critics of the deal struck during the Clinton administration that led to the closure, but not the dismantling, of the nuclear plant that the North Korean government says it is restarting. The Clinton administration nearly went to war over the plant, believing it was used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, but conflict was averted by the 1994 agreement.
"We have no intention to invade," the senior official said. "You never take any option off the table [but] we think we have a chance to solve this in a different way. This time around there is a very good chance you can do this through international pressure, a very good chance."
Bush came into office deeply skeptical of North Korea and wary of pursuing further agreements on missile proliferation that were being negotiated with the Clinton administration. But his advisers remained split over how to deal with North Korea, at least until intelligence emerged this summer of Pyongyang's covert nuclear program.
Under the 1994 accord, North Korea agreed to suspend operation of a nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons-grade material, stop construction of other two other reactors and place plutonium already produced under international safeguards. In return, the United States agreed, among other things, to supply Pyongyang with regular shipments of fuel oil, totaling 3.3 million barrels a year. Under a separate accord, Japan, South Korea and the United States agreed to construct two light-water reactors to generate electricity.
Since North Korea's admission, U.S. officials have pushed hard to get Japan and South Korea in agreement with a policy to isolate North Korea. Last month, the United States, telling its allies it was cutting off funding for monthly fuel oil shipments to the energy-starved nation, demanded that a ship carrying heavy fuel oil to North Korean ports be turned around midway in its voyage, foreign diplomats and U.S. officials said.
The Japanese and South Koreans insisted the November delivery was necessary, since it would help provide 85 percent of North Korea's heavy fuel oil needs for the coming winter. The United States backed down, permitting the ship to complete its voyage, once the other nations agreed to suspend future deliveries.
Yesterday, the North Korean government announced that in response to the fuel oil cutoff, it would "immediately resume the operation and construction of its nuclear facilities to generate electricity." It made no mention of removing 8,000 spent fuel rods from canisters -- which would immediately provide the key ingredient for weapons -- or kicking out international inspectors who monitor the rods in North Korea.
U.S. officials played down the announcement, saying it would be impossible for North Korea to be able to use the reactor to generate electricity. "It's all nonsense," one official said. "They can't hook it up to the grid," which he said has all but collapsed across North Korea.
The fuel oil deliveries, which cost the United States as much as $100 million a year, actually are of little more than symbolic value to North Korea, said Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute, a scientific research organization in Berkeley, Calif. He estimated they provide only 2 percent of North Korea's overall energy supply, providing little heat except to some large buildings. While the oil was intended to match the thermal output of the closed reactors, he said that over the years the highly sulfuric oil has corroded boiler tubes in power generators, putting a number of power plants out of commission.
A number of U.S. officials are determined to try to stop construction of the light-water reactors next year, a step they hope will signal to the North Koreans that they have no choice but to comply with U.S. demands to end its weapons programs.
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.