THE U.S. IS IN DANGER OF PLAYING ITS HAND BADLY ON THE Korean peninsula and heading into the very crisis situation that Bush Administration officials hope to avoid. I was in North Korea in early November, one month after a U.S. team headed by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly accused Pyongyang of operating a secret uranium-enrichment program aimed at producing nuclear weapons. To the surprise of Kelly and his team, the North Korean officials did not deny the charge but said they were "entitled" to have such a program because of threats against them by a hostile U.S.
Sitting at the same highly polished teakwood table in the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang, talking to the same officials the Kelly team had seen, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg and I heard the North's considered response to Washington's worries. They would "clear the concerns" of the U.S.--get rid of the secret program--if Washington recognized their sovereignty and, especially, provided credible assurances of nonaggression.
Despite allegations that the North Koreans are seeking to blackmail the U.S. into rewarding them, they did not ask for money, resources or a tangible payoff of any kind for ending their secret nuclear program. Nor, according to U.S. sources, did they make such requests to the Kelly delegation. I had the distinct impression that they would settle for something well short of the nonaggression treaty they requested, if a credible assurance of their security was presented in some high-level fashion. What they really wanted, it seemed to me, was a face-saving way out of the uranium-enrichment program, which, according to U.S. intelligence, is years away from producing the raw material for even a single nuclear weapon. In the meantime, because the program violates Pyongyang's previous nonnuclear commitments, it is damaging the regime's relationships with its neighbors--relationships North Korea had been industriously seeking to improve to obtain the aid and trade that may be essential to its survival.
Instead of talking to North Korea, the Administration refused to engage Pyongyang further until it gave up its enrichment program. In November the U.S. led the way to stopping shipments of fuel oil promised to North Korea under a 1994 nonnuclear accord. North Korea's response, as U.S. allies in Asia had predicted, was to move to restart its original--and much more dangerous--plutonium nuclear-weapons plant. The North Koreans now appear to me to be headed toward production of nuclear weapons from this plant as rapidly as possible in an effort to assure their security, having been convinced by hard-liners, probably in the military, that a negotiated solution will not come to pass.