North Korea and U.S. locked in dangerous stalemate; Belligerence and distrust could lead to brink of war


TOKYO -- With warnings like its latest threat to wipe American imperialists "from this planet for good," North Korea seems to have grown more hard-line and militarized in recent months, and some analysts fear a major security crisis on the Korean Peninsula this year.

Tensions are rising because of North Korea's missile tests and suspicions that it is secretly developing nuclear weapons in a constellation of underground complexes. The result is a stalemate between North Korea and the West, on top of what appears to be growing mutual distrust and disillusionment.

"The situation will be very, very dangerous in the next few months," said Han S. Park, a political scientist and North Korea specialist at the University of Georgia.

The stalemate is threatening to destroy the 1994 Agreed Framework, which has been widely praised as one of President Clinton's major foreign policy successes and has been the centerpiece of Western efforts to achieve a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

The agreement was the culmination of a tense confrontation in the summer of 1994 that U.S. officials now acknowledge took them much closer to war with North Korea than was generally realized. If it falls apart, the danger of war could again loom on the peninsula.

Under the Agreed Framework, North Korea was to give up its nuclear program; in exchange, the West was to supply fuel oil and a kind of nuclear reactor that cannot easily be used to produce nuclear weapons.

North Korea has a taste for threats and brinkmanship, so it is entirely possible that last-minute solutions will be found. Still, if the stalemate continues, some analysts warn that the United States could face a confrontation with North Korea similar to the one it already faces with Iraq, except that North Korea is believed to have nuclear and chemical weapons and probably has the ability to kill millions of people in the course of losing a war.

The immediate challenge is the mystery surrounding several North Korean underground complexes burrowed into hillsides.

There is no conclusive evidence about precisely what North Korea is doing in those tunnels, near the town of Kumchangri and in several other spots. But some experts say that the appearance and organization of the sites, chemical analyses of dirt samples, and signs of testing of the triggers used to detonate nuclear weapons all indicate a strong likelihood that the underground complexes are being used to develop nuclear weapons.

North Korea is refusing U.S. demands to inspect the complexes, although it has held out the possibility of a deal in which it would get large amounts of money or food aid in exchange for allowing visits.

Congressional Republicans have enacted conditions that will make it difficult for the administration to provide fuel oil to North Korea -- a key United States obligation under the Agreed Framework -- unless the suspicions about the underground complexes are cleared up. The results of a single inspection may be ambiguous, so doubters want regular inspections of up to a dozen sites.

"Even if there's a one-time access to the underground site, that may mean that the temporary crisis is over, but it doesn't resolve the longer-term issue," said Han Sung Joo, who was South Korean foreign minister when the Agreed Framework was reached.

What would happen if the stalemate is not resolved, leading the United States to stop shipping oil and causing the agreement to fall apart?

"Our only option will be to go nuclear and do it publicly," said Kim Myong Chol, an influential North Korean writer and editor who lives in Tokyo and serves as an unofficial spokesman for his country. "North Korea will fabricate nuclear warheads to target Japan and America as major targets and will sell nuclear weapons to any country, to the highest bidder."

"Maybe there will be a new war," Kim said after offering wishes for the new year. "Maybe you and I will all die in Tokyo."

It may be in North Korea's interest to emphasize the risks ahead, to encourage compromise from Washington. But U.S. diplomats also warn that a breakdown in the Agreed Framework could lead North Koreans to revive their nuclear program.

Under the framework, North Koreans froze operations at its reactors in the city of Yongbyon and "canned" the fuel rods there to keep them safe. Stephen W. Bosworth, the U.S ambassador to South Korea, said in a speech a few days ago that if the Agreed Framework falls apart, North Koreans might quickly reverse those steps.

"They could uncan and reprocess the fuel rods, producing enough plutonium in a matter of months to build several nuclear weapons," Bosworth said. "If they refueled the reactor at Yongbyon, they could have an ongoing capability to produce plutonium and build nuclear weapons."

Aside from the problem of the underground complexes, another challenge is North Korea's missile program. On Aug. 31, North Korea sent a three-stage rocket hurtling over Japan, perhaps in an attempt to launch a satellite.

That meant that North Korea's missiles can now reach Tokyo and all other key cities in Japan, and possibly as far as Alaska and Hawaii. Officials said that some satellite intelligence indicates that North Korea may be preparing another missile launching, perhaps by Feb. 16, the birthday of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il.

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