Nuclear Offense; Kim Jong Il Has One Thing Going for Him: His Ability to Threaten the World with Doomsday Weapons. So How Should the Bush Administration Respond to That Threat? the 2006 Budget Calls for the United States to Develop New 'Bunker Busting' Nukes of Its Own

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CORRECTION: In "Nuclear Offense" (Feb. 21) we misspelled the last name of a man identified as a member of the House Armed Services Committee. He is Peter Pry, not Pye. We also should have identified him as a staffer for Rep. Curt Weldon, who is the vice chairman of the committee. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.


Byline: Michael Hirsh and John Barry (With Christian Caryl and Hideko Takayama in Tokyo, B. J. Lee in Seoul, Sarah Schafer in Beijing and Mark Hosenball in Washington Graphic by Andrew Romano)


What does Kim Jong Il really want? No one knows, of course--even the best intelligence on North Korea is sketchy--but it's a fair bet that the diminutive dictator wants to stay alive. Kim is said to be desperately worried. He is believed to move around a lot, traveling from palace to palace as Saddam Hussein once did. He disappears entirely from view for weeks. Kim even occasionally removes his pictures from buildings in Pyongyang, the capital city, in order to promote the idea that collective leadership is displacing his "Great Leader" cult. (He may be hoping to avoid a U.S. smart bomb with his name on it.) The one thing Kim has going for him is that most of the world fears that he has doomsday weapons. According to a visitor who met the dictator in Pyongyang recently, Kim said he could not give up his nuclear bombs because his million-man Army is hopelessly outmoded--leaving him at the mercy of the American military.

George W. Bush has given Kim ample reason to worry. The president has long insisted that North Korea scrap its nukes before Washington makes concrete offers of aid or other inducements. In his Inaugural speech on Jan. 20, Bush only seemed to harden his position, declaring that his No. 1 foreign-policy goal is "ending tyranny in our world" (presumably easier to do in North Korea if Kim surrenders his nuclear weapons). So it's no surprise, perhaps, that late last week the North Korean leadership sounded a bit spooked. Its Foreign Ministry announced for the first time that the North had obtained nuclear arms "for self-defense" and said it was pulling out of disarmament talks. The North's statement accused Washington of attempting to "topple [our] political system at any cost, threatening it with a nuclear stick."

The Bush administration played down Pyongyang's latest bluster. "Let's see what the North Koreans decide to do down the road," Condoleezza Rice remarked calmly, while making her first trip abroad as secretary of State. Rice noted hopefully that Pyongyang still aimed for a "denuclearized Korean Peninsula," and she said America's approach was to continue diplomacy: "The United States has no intention of attacking or invading North Korea."

But in truth, the administration has not put any new diplomatic solutions on the table since June--not least because some senior Bush hawks believe talking and cutting deals won't work. These hard-liners point to the Clinton era, when Kim agreed to freeze his nuclear program in exchange for large doses of aid and a civilian nuclear plant, but cheated on the sly. The question is, what will work?

Relations with both the remaining pair of nations in Bush's "Axis of Evil," Iran and North Korea, seemed worse than ever last week. (Iran's president warned that any U.S. attack would be met by "scorching hell.") Bush's current policy of harsh talk and no inducements seems to have only strengthened hard-liners in both North Korea and Iran. U.S. allies in Europe and Asia are growing balky and rebellious after years of off-and-on talks in which Washington has been a reluctant, even unwilling, partner.

Bush's new budget can only rattle everyone more. For some time the North Korean media have been making constant--even obsessive--references to Bush's development of tactical nukes aimed, according to the North, at "destroying [our] underground military facilities. …