Saturday, October 24, 1998


U.S. nuclear pact
with N. Korea
is fraying

Showdown with South Korea
could come within
months or weeks

By Richard Halloran
Special to the Star-Bulletin


Seoul, South Korea -- The nuclear accord between the United States and North Korea that has been the cornerstone of negotiations for four years is in danger of crumbling, with unpredictable consequences that would include an outbreak of war.

"We are heading for a confrontation," said a South Korean strategic thinker. No one here or in Washington would forecast when a showdown might occur except to say that it may come within months or even weeks. The United States has a security treaty with South Korea and 37,000 troops here who would be among the first in combat if hostilities erupt.

A bit of breathing space may have been created this week when Congress approved $35 million for fuel oil for North Korea but under stringent restrictions, such as verification that Pyongyang had not violated the nuclear accord.

Negotiations intended to reduce tensions also resumed in Geneva. And North Korea said it would permit the United States to inspect an underground site suspected of being a nuclear facility if the U.S. would compensate Pyongyang for the insult to North Korean sovereignty.

The crisis has caused policymakers in Seoul and Washington to discuss a wide range of alternatives that will most likely be on the agenda when President Clinton visits Seoul in November. Those options include to keep on talking, slipping into benign neglect, issuing a quiet ultimatum to Pyongyang, seeking Chinese diplomatic intervention, and attacking North Korean nuclear facilities as Israel did against Iraq in 1981. Each would be risky.

This potential confrontation has been caused by constant North Korean belligerence and blackmail in every aspect of Pyongyang's relations with the U.S. and South Korea, which has led to anger and frustration here and in Washington, especially in the Congress. President Kim Dae Jung's government has kept relatively silent in public, hoping for a North Korean turnaround, but in Washington, Congress has threatened to cut off fuel, food, and funds to North Korea until Pyongyang shows signs of good faith.

The United States and South Korea came close to war with North Korea in 1994 because North Korea was processing material for nuclear weapons. That was averted when Washington and Seoul agreed on Oct. 21, 1994 to give North Korea two nuclear reactors less capable of producing material for weapons and to provide fuel oil until those reactors were completed. In return, North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear program. The U.S. and North Korea agreed to move toward diplomatic relations and North Korea agreed to enter into a dialogue with South Korea. As North Korea's stricken economy plummeted, food aid was added.

Since then, however, North Korea has refused to negotiate with South Korea, has sent armed incursions into South Korea, continued building infiltration tunnels into South Korea, shot down a U.S. helicopter that strayed into North Korea and killed one of two pilots, and directed a stream of invective first at President Kim Young Sam and then at President Kim Dae Jung, who took office in February.

With the U.S., the North Koreans have broken off most meetings at the Panmunjom truce site, stonewalled in talks among North Korea, South Korea, China and the U.S. intended to reduce tensions on the peninsula, and been unwilling to cease missile sales to foreign nations. Indeed, one report held that the North Koreans said they would stop selling missiles if the Americans bought them.

The New York Times reported in July that North Korea was suspected of building a new underground nuclear facility but that has not been officially confirmed. Then North Korea fired a rocket over Japan in August, claiming it was a satellite launch. A rocket launch for an armed missile and for a space satellite look alike.

An open letter from the Council on Foreign Relations to President Clinton has reflected the frustration but called for patience in trying to preserve the accord known as the Agreed Framework. "Thus far, negotiations aimed at clarifying North Korea adherence to the Agreed Framework have yielded little," the letter said, but added that congressional elimination of funds required under the agreement "could lead to a collapse of the Agreed Framework."

This appeared to leave South Korea and the U.S. in a quandary, the more so because of disagreements within President Kim's government and between the Clinton administration and Congress. A scholar in Washington said that relations between the White House and Capitol Hill on this issue were "toxic."

Among the alternatives:

bullet Keep Talking: Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, reflecting the State Department position, told journalists in Seoul this was the best alternative, asserting, "Time is on our side," because of North Korea's deteriorating economy and military power.

bullet Benign Neglect: Some members of Congress have suggested that the U.S. stop negotiations and shipments of fuel and food until North Korea indicates it will enter into serious negotiations. Some South Korean strategists agree.

bullet Quiet Ultimatum: Favored by some strategic thinkers in Seoul, this would couple a halt in contacts with an unpublicized ultimatum to Pyongyang that any overt or covert aggressive move would produce dire but unstated consequences. South Korean and U.S. forces would go on higher alert and the U.S. would move aircraft carriers near North Korea as Clinton did when China fired missiles toward Taiwan in 1996.

bullet Chinese Diplomacy: Officials in Seoul and Washington have pondered this plan as China has been seeking better relations with the U.S. and with South Korea, wants to prevent war on the Korean peninsula, and wants North Korea to survive. But Chinese participants in a recent conference at the Asia-Pacific Center on Security Studies in Honolulu doubted that their government was ready for such a role.

bullet Israeli Option: When Iraq seemed close to completing construction of a reactor near Baghdad in 1981, Israel launched an air raid that demolished the reactor. The U.S. could do the same with cruise missiles launched from ships, submarines, and B-52 bombers. Nuclear specialists said there would be little danger of escaping radiation.

The risk in protracted negotiations is that Pyongyang will keep on pushing for U.S. and South Korea concessions without fulfilling its end of the bargain. Bosworth asserted that benign neglect could cause North Korea to begin producing weapons grade material in three or four months. The risk in an ultimatum is that North Korea would see it as a bluff and call the American hand, which would lead to a choice between appeasement and war.

Chinese diplomacy might be the best option but it is unclear whether Beijing would think so. The Israeli option, considered only as a last resort, could trigger off the 10,000 North Korean artillery pieces near the border with South Korea and many within range of Seoul.

Richard Halloran is a former Asia correspondent
for the New York Times who is now a
freelance writer based in Honolulu.

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