WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has put 24 long-range bombers on alert for possible deployment within range of North Korea, to deter "opportunism" while Washington is focused on Iraq and to give President Bush military options if diplomacy fails to halt North Korea's effort to produce nuclear weapons, officials said yesterday.
The White House said yesterday that Bush was still committed to a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Any decision to bolster the considerable U.S. military presence near North Korea was making "certain our contingencies are viable," said Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman.
Rumsfeld, who Pentagon officials stressed has not decided whether to send the bombers, was acting on a request for additional forces from Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. Fargo has concluded that the North's race to produce a nuclear weapon had significantly increased the risks on the Korean peninsula.
"This puts them on a short string," said a senior Pentagon official, who explained that the aircraft and crews are ready to move out within a set number of hours if they receive a deployment order.
The bomber force, along with surveillance planes, would be sent to Guam from bases in the United States. The deployment would bring a potent capability to the region if Bush decides he can't allow North Korea to begin reprocessing its spent nuclear fuel into enough weapons-grade plutonium for as many as a half-dozen weapons.
The Pentagon issued the new alert as the International Atomic Energy Agency said it would hold an emergency session Feb. 12 to declare North Korea in breach of its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and refer the issue to the United Nations Security Council.
Bush administration officials said yesterday that they would seek a resolution there condemning North Korea but that they would not take the next step of asking for economic sanctions or isolation of that country.
The officials, in private briefings to members of Congress, have confirmed that North Korea appears to be moving spent nuclear fuel rods that have been in storage since 1994.
If processed into plutonium, those rods could provide the material for more than a half-dozen nuclear weapons, about one a month once the processing plant is in full operation, experts said.
That gives Bush "a few weeks to a few months to decide if he wants to do something about Yongbyon" before the plutonium production is under way, when any military strike would risk spreading radioactive pollution around the Korean peninsula, a senior official said yesterday.
White House and Pentagon officials said no attack is planned on the Yongbyon nuclear facility, the center of North Korea's plutonium project.
Deploying the bombers to Guam would cut their flying time to the Korean peninsula, and consideration of the move suggests that the Pentagon and the White House might be concerned about the possible need for more forces on short notice. Many forces ordinarily based in the Pacific have been sent to the Middle East.
"We are clearly engaged in a discussion about what is appropriate should we find ourselves engaged in executing a military operation in Iraq," a senior Defense Department official said. "We want to make sure we have sufficient forces in place in the Korean peninsula area to deter any opportunism."
The dozen B-52 bombers and another dozen B-1 bombers could help the 37,500 U.S. troops in South Korea deter an attack from the North across the demilitarized zone. But U.S. commanders in South Korea have long said that they have sufficient forces to deter such an attack, or at least fend it off until reinforcements could arrive.