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Fears about nuclear weapons cloud U.S. policy on North Korea

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Washington is having a hard time trying to decide what to do with North Korea.

The trouble is, North Korea makes missiles that can fly at least as far as Japan and may be developing nuclear weapons to attach to those missiles. It may also have chemical and biological warheads for the missiles.

Another worry is that North Korea sells its missiles to anyone with cash, and primarily to governments that cannot buy from Western arms traders. North Korea was supposed to shut down a project to produce weapons-grade plutonium in 1994 under the Geneva Agreed Framework. In return, the United States, Japan and South Korea pledged billions of dollars to build and fuel two nuclear power plants for the North.

But since last year, Pyongyang and Washington have squabbled over an underground military facility that the United States says is a nuclear weapons development project. The United States wants to inspect the site, but North Korea had said no.

On March 16, North Korea agreed to open the facility to a U.S. team in May 1999, May 2000 and then for as long as the United States has suspicions about it. At the same time, the United States pledged to launch an agricultural project in the famine-hit North that would include 100,000 tons of food aid.

The U.S. State Department said the inspections and the food aid are not linked. However, according to The Far Eastern Economic Review, a newsweekly published from Hong Kong, Radio Pyongyang reported that the United States is paying a “fee” for visiting the underground facility.

A few days after the March 16 agreement, the Japanese navy discovered mysterious ships in its territorial waters, which when approached and pursued headed into a North Korean port. Japan said they were spy ships, but North Korea said it knew nothing about them.

Japan already had its nerves rattled by North Korea’s firing of a three-stage missile over its territory in August 1998. Because of continued North Korean belligerence, Japan has said it is reassessing its pledge to help North Korea build light-water nuclear reactors. Japan also said it will join the United States in developing a theater missile defense system. South Korea said it is not interested in the missile system. President Kim Dae Jung said the North is five to seven years away from being able to build a nuclear bomb, and he doesn’t want threats of retaliation to cast clouds on his “sunshine policy” of engaging the North.

Kim has been sending South Korean businessmen and tourists to the North along with food and development aid. After the March 16 agreement, his government offered the North 50,000 tons of fertilizer. U.S. Congressional Republicans have called these agreements “blackmail” and “appeasement.”

Congressman Doug Bereuter, R-Neb., who chairs the House International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, wants a new, tougher policy toward North Korea.

Speaking to the Heritage Foundation on Feb. 4, he called current policy, “too much like paying blackmail to avoid North Korean aggression or to delay facing a growing threat of weapons of mass destruction.”

Bereuter, whose subcommittee oversees North Korean issues, was a leading sponsor of the legislation that pledges that the United States will develop a theater missile defense system. He cited the possibility that North Korea had intercontinental missiles that could deliver nuclear or chemical warheads to the North American continent as the reason for his support.

He told the Heritage Foundation that North Korea is at a crossroads: It can choose to march toward economic and social collapse or to embrace America’s exchange of aid “for a verifiable commitment that it has not continued -- and will not continue -- its nuclear weapons program.”

Bereuter has a strong ally in New York Republican Benjamin A. Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Opening hearings on North Korea on March 24, Gilman said North Korea is “the country most likely to involve our nation in a large-scale regional war over the near term.”

The prospects for reduced tensions, permanent peace, North-South dialogue and normal relations, “all these appear to be a distant likelihood,” he said. “Regrettably, the administration’s policy is not addressing this reality. In light of recent provocative events ... it is evident that the administration’s policy of accommodation -- to engage and ultimately to moderate Pyongyang’s reckless behavior -- seems to be failing.

“Communist North Korea is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in East Asia. We will spend over $225 million in North Korea this year alone. By thus rewarding North Korea’s bad behavior, the White House has been encouraging brinkmanship. Its current policy may be having exactly the opposite effect of what was intended and may actually be leading us toward -- and not away from -- confrontation with Pyongyang.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999