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
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
"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. …