Nicholas Kristof | Grabbing the Nettle
Grabbing the Nettle
By Nicholas D. Kristof
New York Times
Friday 01 August 2003
The Pentagon held an all-day meeting a couple of weeks ago seeking ways to restrain North Korea. At the end of it, one expert turned to another and summed it up: "In other words, we're" doomed - except he used a pungent phrase I can't.
It was a fair judgment. North Korea was always more terrifying than Iraq, and now the situation is getting worse.
It's true, as the administration enthusiastically announced yesterday, that we seem to be moving toward a new round of multiparty talks with North Korea, and that's great. But it's very unclear what North Korea is demanding and when the talks will take place. In any case, no one thinks that this round of talks will produce much more than possible photo-ops.
Meanwhile, the North seems to be proceeding steadily, perhaps as fast as its rusty technology will allow, to build nuclear weapons, using both plutonium and uranium methods.
"Time is slipping away for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula," warns a major report issued yesterday by the International Crisis Group. It adds: "North Korea has the materials and the capability to develop nuclear weapons - more than 200 of them by 2010."
What would it do with them? Well, it may have been bluster, but a senior North Korean official, Li Gun, warned a U.S. counterpart that if the stalemate continued, North Korea could transfer nukes abroad.
While President Bush has said he won't tolerate a nuclear North Korea, it looks as if that may be where we are headed. Part of the problem is that the administration is still groping for a policy on North Korea.
"We have an attitude, not a policy," said Donald Gregg, a former ambassador to South Korea who is president of the Korea Society in New York.
We're so used to the administration's hyping the Iraq threat that it's stunning to see officials playing down the North Korean crisis.
"If you wanted a case of imminent threat and danger, according to the principles enunciated in the National Security Strategy document, then North Korea is much more of a threat than Iraq ever was in the last few years," noted Jonathan Pollack, chairman of the strategic research department of the Naval War College.
The situation is also getting more alarming because, as my Times colleagues Thom Shanker and David Sanger reported, America's spooks have used electronic "sniffers" along North Korea's borders to detect krypton-85 emissions, which mean plutonium is being reprocessed. Worse, although there is uncertainty about this, some of those emissions may be coming from a secret reprocessing site that we don't know anything about.
The spooks are still sniffing energetically, and they haven't gotten a whiff of anything lately. But the best guess is that North Korea is slowly reprocessing plutonium, possibly at a hidden location, as well as trying to enrich uranium at yet another site we can't find. Moreover, North Korea has been experimenting with miniaturization of warheads, apparently so it can eventually attach a nuclear weapon to a missile.
"The mess is getting messier," noted Ashton Carter, a former senior Pentagon official who wrestled with North Korea. "We have allowed our options to narrow and our position to slip. So it's getting worse."
In fairness, the North Korea mess is not President Bush's fault, nor, for that matter, President Bill Clinton's fault. It's Kim Jong Il's fault.
But the administration needs to confront the challenge directly, rather than stall for time. To its credit, after initially botching the crisis, the administration has dropped its initial refusal to talk with the North until it gives up its nuclear programs. But Mr. Bush still hasn't grasped the nettle and accepted the need to engage North Korea and negotiate a new package deal.
A new deal is a lousy option, and perhaps no longer attainable. But as a growing number of people in the administration realize, it's worth trying - if only to strengthen our position if negotiations fail. Otherwise, we're slipping again into the Clinton administration's approach of largely doing nothing and hoping for North Korea to collapse on its own.
That was a failure of the Clinton years. It's even more foolish now that the North appears to be moving aggressively to become the world's first nuclear Wal-Mart.
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