What to do about North Korea?

Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2003

WASHINGTON North Korea isn't on the agenda when President Bush meets with fellow Pacific rim leaders at an economic summit in Thailand next week. And Kim Jong Il won't be in attendance.

But the reclusive leader and his nation's nuclear program will get plenty of attention, nevertheless, as leaders scheduled to talk about trade and currency also grapple with their region's biggest security challenge.

Whatever Bush may say about the subject will receive careful scrutiny from other delegates and from Kim, who will be in Pyongyang.

The president's comments could well determine the fate of the six-nation talks designed to end the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, says Jack Pritchard, a veteran Korea expert who recently retired from the State Department.

Pritchard said in an interview that Kim has been delaying a decision on a new round of talks because, if he says ''yes'' now, he would look foolish if Bush uses the Thailand meeting to excoriate the reclusive communist state.

China, in hopes of getting Kim to commit, twice offered to send an envoy to Pyongyang, only to be rebuffed.

Now Pyongyang is suddenly amenable, and Pritchard says it is no coincidence that a Beijing envoy is due in Pyongyang at about the same time that the Asia-Pacific summit is getting under way early next week.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is showing impatience with the North Koreans. There has not been a six-nation meeting on the nuclear issue since a late August conclave in Beijing. More importantly, no apparent progress has been discernible toward the administration's goal, enunciated a year ago, of bringing about the verifiable and permanent dismantling of North Korea's weapons programs.

Few issues concern Pyongyang more than U.S. intentions.

''They think we are still an enemy and we're after them, and we won't be satisfied until the regime is gone,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters last Friday.

Regime change may not be the policy now but Pritchard says that, over the long term, a denuclearized, Seoul-led, unified Korean peninsula is the U.S. goal. ''Nobody tries to hide it,'' says the former diplomat, now with the Brookings Institution.

Powell has some ideas for providing security assurances to North Korea and will try them out on his Pacific rim foreign minister colleagues this weekend in Bangkok in advance of the summit.

Powell is assuming North Korea will be less reluctant to get out of the nuclear weapons business if it receives credible no-invasion pledges from the United States and the other participants in the six-party talks.

As Powell describes it, the pledges would be contained in a formal, written multilateral agreement in which the six would guarantee peaceful intentions toward one another. Lately, Powell has had his aides scouring historical files looking for models of agreements that could apply to the North Korean situation.

Aside from the United States and North Korea, participants in the six-nation process are Japan, China, South Korea and Russia. All four will have representatives in Bangkok.

The North Korea problem is being viewed here with growing urgency. Some American intelligence analysts say the country may have three, four or even six nuclear weapons instead of the one or two the CIA now estimates.

For the time being, Bush is banking on diplomacy. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday the six-party talks ''offer the best opportunity for an effective solution to getting a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula.''

Pritchard believes the North Koreans could walk away from the process if the next round does not turn out to their liking.

At that point, he says, North Korea will pick up the pace of its weapons development and may issue a public declaration before next year's U.S. presidential elections asserting that the country is a nuclear weapons state.

Failure of the diplomatic process would reverberate here as well, forcing Bush to consider other options.

George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.

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