Security seen as goal of North Korea

Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 12:59 a.m.
SEOUL, South Korea - A 1994 deal between North Korea and the United States lies in disarray, but it still offers the best idea of what the communist country urgently wants from its No. 1 foe: economic help and security assurances.
The twin goals stem from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's desperate quest to survive in a world where he is largely bereft of friends, at odds with the lone superpower and beset by economic decay that could undermine his rule.
Most analysts agree North Korea's woes owe much to its penchant for deceit and confrontation, most recently evident in moves to restart its nuclear facilities, as well as an earlier revelation that it has a second, clandestine nuclear program.
In the latest step, two U.N. nuclear inspectors expelled by North Korea arrived in China on Tuesday, leaving behind nuclear facilities that experts say can be used to produce nuclear weapons within months. U.S. and international inspectors can now monitor the sites only from satellite images.
North Korea has a reputation as a pariah nation that acts irrationally, flouting international norms. But some view its recent moves as part of a calculated strategy to protect its interests.
North Korea genuinely appears to have a fear of U.S. military designs, especially following a hardening of U.S. policy after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It is also outraged that Washington is late on its pledge to build two light-water nuclear reactors by 2003 to provide desperately needed energy.
The reactors, which are of a type that is hard to use to make nuclear weapons, were a key element of the Oct. 21, 1994, Agreed Framework under which North Korea agreed to freeze suspected nuclear weapons development at Yongbyon. But the building of the new reactors was thrown years behind schedule by political tension and funding problems.
Pyongyang is readying its Yongbyon reactor, presumably as a way to pressure the United States to offer similar concessions in a replay of the crisis eight years ago. But Washington says it won't play the same game and is considering economic pressure, not rewards, against the North.
North Korea is echoing unfulfilled terms in the four-page Agreed Framework, including Washington's pledge to provide the North with "formal assurances ... against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S."
U.S. officials say they are not considering an invasion of North Korea and want a peaceful solution to the dispute.
But Pyongyang has noted President Bush's pre-emptive strike doctrine, as well as his preparations for a possible war against Iraq, a fellow member of Bush's club of "axis of evil" nations.
For weeks, North Korea has said it will resolve concerns about its nuclear development if Washington signs a nonaggression treaty. Such an accord would be simpler than the peace treaty formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War, a complex task that could draw in China and the United Nations. Washington has ruled out any dialogue until the North gives up its nuclear ambitions.
"North Korea is pursuing a survival policy, not a suicidal one," said Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, an independent research center in Seoul.
North Korea's plan for self-preservation includes trying to extract aid from Washington to rescue an economy that sank into freefall after the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist trading partners.
A clause in the Agreed Framework says that within three months of its signing, "both sides will reduce barriers to trade and investment, including restrictions on telecommunications services and financial transactions."
Although some economic restrictions were removed under the Clinton administration, the impact was mostly symbolic, and North Korea's priority is to get off the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
That list rules out bank loans from the World Bank and other international financial organizations that are heavily influenced by Washington.
North Korea already relies on outside food aid from the United States, which is shipped via the U.N. World Food Program. And its energy shortage remains severe, with prospects for completion of the light-water reactors at a standstill.
The Agreed Framework also calls for each side to open a liaison office in the other's capital and, "as progress is made on issues of concern to each side," the upgrading of ties to the ambassadorial level.
A U.S.-North Korean accommodation appeared to be within reach in 2000, when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang amid talks on ending North Korea's long-range missile exports and development.
But those talks failed to produce a deal, and ties deteriorated after Bush took office and ordered a review of policy with a nation that he labeled untrustworthy.
If North Korea's bid for negotiations as a survival strategy fails, it could choose to start making nuclear weapons, a possible deterrent against the perceived U.S. threat. U.S. officials say it already has one or two bombs.
"If the United States doesn't come to the table, it could decide 'Let's go nuclear,"' said Paik, the analyst.

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