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SO, HOW DANGEROUS IS NORTH KOREA? THE answer has long been difficult to divine, given the insularity of the Hermit Kingdom and the erratic behavior of its leaders, first Kim Il Sung and now his son Kim Jong Il. At every turn since the beginning of the crisis last October, Kim Jong Il has repeatedly called Washington's bluff, ignoring warnings and raising the stakes. Kim chose not to buy more time by denying the U.S.'s evidence that he had started a secret uranium-enrichment program. The U.S. and its allies halted fuel-oil deliveries to North Korea; at that point, instead of agreeing to abandon the uranium project, Kim got ready to fire up the Yongbyon complex, which the regime had mothballed under the terms of the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton Administration. And by removing the spent-fuel seals, opening the reprocessing plant and expelling inspectors, Kim has gone even further than anticipated toward building new bombs--and at a more terrifyingly rapid pace.
The quest for a nuclear weapon has obsessed the Pyongyang regime since the 1950s, when Kim Il Sung began working to amass an arsenal potent enough to deter a feared U.S. attack. Though Pyongyang has made gestures suggesting it was ready to make concessions in exchange for aid and security guarantees, neither Kim Il Sung nor his son gave up the raw material for bombmaking or renounced the desire to obtain the Bomb; in their mind, doing so would sap the country's bargaining strength and make the regime's survival dependent on its neighbors' goodwill.
Kim is shrewd enough not to court annihilation by using a nuclear device. "He is very knowledgeable about what goes on in the international scene," South Korean President Kim Dae Jung recently told TIME. And yet Kim apparently is convinced that he will someday go to war with the U.S. According to Kim Hyun Shik, a former professor at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, the North Korean leader watched the Gulf War closely and even ordered a film produced that analyzed the weak points of the U.S. military. The conclusion: Iraq lost because it lacked the will to attack U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and explode gas and oil pipelines. He made his military officials watch the film to boost morale. But Lee Young Kuk, a former bodyguard to Kim, says his ex-boss "is afraid of the U.S. He knows he can't beat them."
The CIA isn't sure the North Koreans have the skill to make a nuclear device small enough to load onto its missiles. But if they do, the danger is great. Pyongyang wields a huge stash of short-and medium-range missiles, including at least 100 Nodong missiles capable of striking Japan. U.S. intelligence officials say Pyongyang wants to become the first rogue state capable of striking the U.S. homeland with a missile. In 1998 the North Koreans test-fired a three-stage Taepo Dong-1 rocket that landed in the Pacific Ocean. The Pentagon believes that North Korea is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Taepo Dong-2, that could reach Alaska, Hawaii and possibly California. The North Koreans had pledged not to test-fire any long-range weapons until this year. If testing resumes, a U.S. military official says, Pyongyang may be able to target the continental U.S. with a nuclear warhead "within several years."