Japan Fears N. Korea near Point of No Return ; the North Appears Ready to Start Up a Reprocessing Plant

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Satellite photos indicating that North Korea is cranking up its nuclear program - turning on its Yongbyon reactor and testing equipment that reprocesses spent-fuel rods - are deepening worries in Japan that Kim Jong Il is approaching a point of no return in his self-styled standoff with the US.

Asian diplomats acknowledge the US wants North Korea to make the next diplomatic move. But Mr. Kim, they say, is using US preoccupation with Iraq to engage in activity that will later make it impossible for the White House to countenance any kind of talks. And, they say, neither Kim nor the White House realizes how far apart they are in trying to defuse the crisis.

The logic of these events, despite US assurances to the contrary, could force a decision to use hardline measures, even military means, against North Korea - if Kim stockpiles weapons-grade plutonium that he can sell, these sources say. That decision would hold risky consequences for northeast Asia.

Since last fall, when Kim began a rapid series of steps and threats, officials have focused on a central question: Is North Korea bluffing, or is it serious about making nuclear weapons?

South Korean officials say Kim is escalating to achieve talks with the US. But the Japanese have a different conclusion: that Kim is following a two-track policy that will allow him to play his hand to gain concessions or achieve weapons, depending on circumstances. "We feel at some point last fall, the North Korean leadership took the decision to make nuclear weapons," a senior Japanese official says.

A number of Japanese diplomats, alarmed at the North's increasing isolation, privately want the US to find means to talk with Pyongyang, though most admit they haven't found a suitable formula yet.

"There is a possibility of diplomacy now," says an Asian diplomat who has negotiated extensively with Pyongyang. "Time is a factor. We are worried the North will go over the edge. That won't be good for North Korea, for the US, for anyone. But if I had a formula, I wouldn't be sitting here."

A March 1 report in The New York Times quotes US officials saying that a small reprocessing plant near the main Yongbyon reactor appears ready to be opened. The report spells out a scenario where Kim could reprocess some 800-plus spent fuel rods that were formerly under UN inspection, and do so during the early stages of a US-led Iraq campaign, when it would be difficult to address. It is estimated Kim could reprocess fissile material the equivalent of one bomb per month.

Since last fall, the agreed-upon "red line" that North Korea supposedly could not cross continues to shift. Last fall, it was defined as Kim's kicking out UN inspectors; Kim booted them on New Year's Eve. The starting of the Yongbyon facility was another line; US intelligence reports that Kim started the reactor last week.

Reprocessing may be the next line. Or it may be pushed to an actual test of nuclear weapons - something Kim may not be able to achieve any time soon, if ever.

While China, Russia, and Asian neighbors say the US should hold bilateral talks with the North, it is uncertain whether there is much common ground even if the parties were to meet. "We would tell him, 'Stop making nuclear weapons.' We would say, 'if you want aid, money, food, energy, relations with Japan, then comply with your agreements,' " one State Department Korea specialist says. …