The Next WMD Crisis

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AP (2)

Threat: Kim Jong II and his country's spent fuel rods are vexing policymakers

Just after dawn last Thursday morning, four bullets whistled across the Demilitarized Zone from North Korean positions near the town of Yonchon, 35 miles north of Seoul. Three of the rounds struck the concrete wall of a South Korean guard post; the fourth was found nearby. South Korean soldiers replied a minute later with K-3 machine guns, firing 17 rounds back across the DMZ. It was the first exchange of fire since late 2001 by forces that have remained technically at war since 1953. It was also the latest sign of a deepening crisis on the Korean peninsula — and one that involves ordnance far more deadly than bullets.

Over the past two weeks, U.S. and South Korean officials have released fresh evidence that North Korea is advancing its program to build miniaturized nuclear weapons. Pyongyang claims to have converted enough plutonium from spent nuclear fuel rods for at least five or six bombs. The U.S. and South Korea say the North has conducted recent tests to perfect high-explosive detonators used to trigger a nuclear explosion. Ongoing work at the North's nuclear plant at Yongbyon is well known. But over the weekend, the New York Times reported that American and Asian officials say there is strong evidence that the North has built a second, secret plant for producing weapons-grade plutonium. If left unchecked, Pyongyang could test a nuclear weapon by the end of this year, according to U.S. and South Korean experts. In 1994 the U.S. almost went to war with the North to stop it from building such a nuclear arsenal, but with the U.S. military stretched thin around the globe, war is an even less attractive option now than it was then.

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But the alternative is awful: not just that North Korea might one day threaten the U.S. directly but also that the cash-strapped regime in Pyongyang could decide to sell its nuclear material to other rogue states or to terrorists. Last week Chinese diplomats shuttled between Pyongyang and Washington trying to restart talks among the U.S., China and North Korea, but internal divisions between hard-liners and moderates in all three capitals are stalling progress.

The crisis has been years in the making. In early 2001 President George W. Bush abandoned the talks the Clinton Administration had pursued with the North. Then, last summer, the U.S. learned that Pyongyang had been secretly trying to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons all along and had bought specialized centrifuge cylinders from Pakistan. When Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted North Korean officials about the program last October, they happily admitted to it, according to U.S. officials, and asked what the U.S. intended to do next.

If the U.S. thought Pyongyang's bad behavior would gain it allies for a tougher line, though, it was wrong. The Bush team said the uranium program was proof that Pyongyang could not be trusted, but critics argued that Washington's hard line had driven the North to pursue enrichment. South Korea's President at the time, Kim Dae Jung, who had pursued a "sunshine" policy toward North Korea, urged caution and more direct talks between the North and the U.S. Pyongyang's longtime protector, China, refused to support U.N. sanctions against the North despite its concerns about a nuclear-arms race on the peninsula.

In fact, China's leadership is divided on how to handle North Korea's threat. President Hu Jintao and his still influential predecessor, Jiang Zemin, must balance the country's powerful military and security ministries against the Foreign Ministry, which has been brainstorming to find ways to increase pressure on North Korea. The diplomats' hands were strengthened when the North walked away from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty last January, broke into a stash of plutonium that had been secured by the U.N. and ousted inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. To force Pyongyang to the table, Beijing last March cut off North Korea's energy lifeline — an oil pipeline from northeastern China — for three days.

Not that it did much good. During three-way talks that Beijing had organized in April, North Korean delegates waited until the Chinese were out of earshot to tell the Americans they not only had nuclear weapons but would also consider selling nuclear material to other countries. Since then, China has not objected to new Bush Administration moves to punish the North. "China has delivered some hard messages privately" to North Korea, says a senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations. But if anyone was hoping for better behavior from the North, it hasn't happened yet.

Washington's strategy has been to increase the cost of North Korean defiance. Last week hard-liners within the Administration tried to commit the U.S. to giving asylum to large numbers of North Korean refugees. (They already have guarantees of safety in South Korea.) The intent: to encourage the sort of mass exodus from the North that helped bring down East European communist regimes in 1989. At the same time, 10 countries have agreed to join the U.S. in cracking down on the export of weapons technologies from North Korea, and the Administration is trying to stop the North's illegal sales of drugs too.

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