The Next WMD Crisis

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

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In public, the Bush Administration has always scorned a deal under which the North would be rewarded for its blackmail tactics. Hawks like Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld think an agreement of that type during the Clinton Administration allowed Pyongyang to further develop its nuclear programs, and they have resisted direct talks with the North. Instead, they favor increasing sanctions and the interdiction of materiel vital to the North's programs.

Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo last week returned from a four-day trip to Pyongyang, where he met with Korean leader Kim Jong Il and other officials. The next day China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, said that "China hopes to see the quick resumption of the peace talks." U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that he expected some diplomatic developments soon. Senior State Department officials say Pyongyang has accepted the idea of three-way talks. On Friday Dai met with Powell, Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. But Administration sources say that Powell has so far been unable to secure the agreement of hard-liners to resume meetings with China and the North.

Some in the Administration would like a really ambitious deal to provide the security guarantees and energy supplies the North demands in exchange for the verifiable denuclearization the U.S. requires. In the talks on any such deal, the U.S. would insist the North Koreans jump first by scrapping its nukes. But even so, an Administration hard-liner says, the White House has still not endorsed the hope for a grand bargain.

Even if talks start, there are enormous risks. Washington could miscalculate how much diplomatic pressure to apply to the North or run such a tough interdiction regime that Pyongyang responds with more provocations like the one along the DMZ last week. That in turn could prompt China to abandon its efforts to nudge the North into making concessions. Overhanging all this is the suspicion that in the end, North Korea is simply dead set on getting nukes, no matter what the cost. "We need nuclear weapons to survive if the U.S. continues to isolate and pressure us," North Korea's deputy ambassador to the U.N. told a South Korean newspaper on July 14. If that is truly the North's intent, military action might yet be required to remove the threat.

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