North Korea: How Dire a Threat?

A primer on what's fueling Pyongyang's nuclear maneuvers

North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, is playing an unnerving game of nuclear brinkmanship. In October, Pyongyang said it had been secretly pursuing ways to enrich uranium, a precursor to nuclear-weapons production, in violation of a 1994 agreement. Now, it says it will reactivate an idle plutonium-based reactor in Yongbyon, 50 miles north of Pyongyang, that experts say is its main bomb-research facility. Pyongyang ratcheted up the tension by expelling U.N. nuclear-plant inspectors from the country. Whether this is a classic North Korean feint to extract international aid or a serious quest to make nuclear weapons, the crisis presents a hornets' nest of problems for governments worldwide. Here are the core issues:

Q: Is an impoverished North Korea really a threat to global security?

A: Absolutely. It has a million-man army ready to cross a demilitarized zone just 25 miles from Seoul. North Korea has an array of missiles that can reach Japan from a launching site in Taepodong, on the east coast, and it is developing missiles that could hit Alaska. North Korea also exports missile parts and knowhow. Iran's Shahab-3 missiles, for instance, owe much to North Korean technology.

Q: How quickly could North Korea develop nuclear weapons?

A: Actually, it may already have one or two nukes built from plutonium extracted before 1994, the CIA says. If Kim follows through on threats to fire up its mothballed nuclear facilities, spent fuel rods could be quickly converted into weapons-grade plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency thinks North Korea could restart the reactor in two months and have a half-dozen warheads sometime this summer.

Q: Why is this happening now?

A: There are two theories: First, Pyongyang may be gambling that the U.S. is too fixated on Iraq to do anything drastic about North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The other factor may be that as a charter member of George W. Bush's "axis of evil," North Korea feels that confrontation with the U.S. is just a matter of time. Having nukes and missiles to deliver them gives Kim the ability to strike back in the event of a U.S. or South Korean attack.

Q: But aren't economic factors at work here as well?

A: Yes. North Korea, in a drive to clear arable land, has pursued a policy of massive deforestation since the mid-1990s. This has led to devastating floods that have helped push down rice and maize production, which has fallen by more than 60% in the past 15 years. Repeated famines have killed hundreds of thousands, and the U.N. estimates that 57% of the nation's 23.2 million citizens are malnourished. In short, the country is desperate for both hard currency and food aid, and Kim has apparently concluded that nuclear threats are the way to get them. Still, there's little doubt that the political survival of Kim's communist regime is the No. 1 reason for the nuclear gambit.

Q: What are Washington's policy options?

A: Although Washington will never entirely rule out destroying the North Korean reactor, Secretary of State Colin Powell says the U.S. isn't planning a preemptive strike. Even if the U.S. wanted to attack the facility, South Korea and Japan would oppose military action, which could trigger war on the Korean peninsula and perhaps even a missile assault on Japan. Pyongyang would lose in the end, but possibly at a grievous cost to the winning side.

Instead of force, Washington is pinning its hopes on "tailored containment"--a U.N.-led effort to denounce North Korea's recent actions, plus the threat of tough economic sanctions and a crackdown on arms sales. That, Washington hopes, will force Kim's regime to choose between disarmament and economic collapse.

Q: What kind of deal might Kim accept?

A: Pyongyang has said that a nonaggression pact with the U.S., establishment of diplomatic relations, and expansion of economic aid might defuse the crisis. Washington says no formal talks can take place until Kim gives up his nuclear ambitions. South Korean diplomats think a face-saving deal in which the U.S. pledges not to topple Kim's regime, plus a decent economic aid package, might still win the day.

If Washington accepted such a deal, U.S. officials would likely demand a halt to the sale of missile parts and technology, plus rock-solid proof that North Korea has stopped developing nukes.

Q: What outcome would best suit North Korea's neighbors?

A: South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun advocates dialogue--not saber-rattling--to calm tensions. Other officials have said that Washington's plan of economic isolation of the North won't work. And South Korean diplomats privately object to the ham-handed rhetoric the U.S. employs when dealing with Kim, which in their eyes only drives him more into isolation. Japan is slightly more hawkish and could be spurred to develop its own nukes as a result of the crisis, but it wouldn't sign off on any military adventures.

China would prefer a non-nuclear North Korea with enough international assistance to feed its people. For China, a war on the Korean peninsula or economic collapse in North Korea would create, at the very least, a new refugee problem. On the other hand, if China helps persuade Pyongyang to back down, it could claim to be a credible partner in the global war on terrorism.

Q: Would North Korea really press the button on a nuclear attack?

A: That's doubtful, given the likely American response and the result: Armageddon for Kim's regime. Yet nobody wants to contemplate a world in which an economically depressed North Korea is selling portable nuclear weapons or weapons-grade plutonium to the highest bidder. Somehow, this renegade regime has to be stopped before it's too late.

By Brian Bremner in Tokyo and Moon Ihlwan in Seoul

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