Image: File Photo Of Fuel Rod Fabrication Plant At Yongbyon Nuclear Power Plant
North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear fuel rod fabrication plant is shown in this file image taken in May 1992.
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msnbc.com
updated 10/3/2003 12:52:23 PM ET 2003-10-03T16:52:23

There’s a puzzle in the North Korean officials’ statement on Thursday that they have finished reprocessing all 8,000 of their nuclear fuel rods and will soon be churning the resulting plutonium into atom bombs. The boast could signal a stiffening of bargaining tactics for the next round of six-party disarmament talks-a message to President Bush and his negotiating partners (the heads of South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia) that they’d better give in to Kim Jong-il’s conditions now, before it’s too late. Or the statement could mean that it’s too late already — that Bush has waited too long, and Kim’s nuclear program has progressed too far, for any disarmament deal to be reached.

InsertArt(2031223)THE STRANGE THING is that there’s nothing new in North Korea’s claim, which was recited by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon at the country’s U.N. mission, then repeated by its official news agency. Nor is there anything new about their postscript on Friday that they have solved “all the technological matters” involved in converting plutonium into bombs. North Korean diplomats made these same statements to U.S. officials at a widely reported meeting at the United Nations on June 30. In August, they said they would soon use some of its new plutonium to set off a nuclear test.

So, why are the North Koreans making such a big deal now over a threat they first issued three months ago? Could they be bluffing? Is it possible that they have no A-bombs in the works, that they’re just pretending they do in order to shore up their bargaining leverage and to deter an attack by Bush, who did, after all, tag North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil” with Iran and Iraq (and look what happened to Iraq)?

NUCLEAR POKER

It’s a possibility worth considering for a moment. U.S. intelligence agencies are now speculating that, in the months leading up to Gulf War II, Saddam Hussein actively duped the American government into believing that he was continuing to build weapons of mass destruction — that some of the Iraqi defectors and other sources who made such claims were in fact Saddam’s agents. Why would Saddam do such a thing? To deter Bush from invading Iraq. CIA Director George Tenet had testified the previous summer that Saddam would use biochemical weapons only if his regime were under attack. Many of Bush’s critics cited this testimony as an argument against going to war. One can imagine Saddam fantasizing that Bush might come to the same conclusion. (Past dictators have made similar miscalculations. In the late ’50s, Nikita Khrushchev boasted that Soviet factories were churning out ICBMs “like sausages.” The claim, besides being false, only spurred American factories to start churning them out for real.)

Kim Jong-il, the dictator of North Korea, is famously a bit crazy. But if he were the sanest leader on Earth, he would have good reason to fear an American attack and to contrive an impression that he had a “nuclear deterrent force” (as his diplomats call it), even — perhaps especially — if he didn’t. And North Korea is such a closed society — Kim holds a more totalitarian grip over the country than his hero, Stalin, ever held over the Soviet Union — that he could probably get away with the bluff.

Bush officials exaggerated and, in some cases, falsified claims of an Iraqi WMD program-a fact that, no doubt, fosters some suspicion that they might now be pulling the same trickery (or getting suckered into the same deceptions) about a North Korean A-bomb.

It could be that the North Koreans are exaggerating a little bit; they might not have finished reprocessing all 8,000 fuel rods (which would produce enough plutonium to build four or five atom bombs). But, alas, the evidence indicates that the prospect of a Pyongyang nuclear arsenal is all too real and all too imminent.

There are many crucial differences between the two cases. In Iraq, the main physical evidence of a WMD program was the absence of evidence that the Iraqis had destroyed all the biological and chemical weapons they once possessed; and there was no evidence, of any sort, that they were actively pursuing a nuclear-weapons program.

NEGOTIATING TABLE

In North Korea, on the other hand, we know that nuclear fuel rods were stored at a reactor; they were kept under lock and key by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. We know that the North Koreans broke the lock, sent the inspectors packing, loaded the fuel rods onto trucks, and drove them to a reprocessing plant.

We also know that, in the early 1990s, before President Clinton and Kim Il-Sung (Kim Jong-il’s father) negotiated an “Agreed Framework” that placed those rods under inspection in exchange for energy and economic assistance, North Korea produced enough plutonium to make one or two atom bombs. Whether they actually made the bombs is unclear, but especially given the country’s relationship with Pakistan, there is no reason to dismiss the possibility. (North Korea has exported missiles to Pakistan and may have received assistance on nuclear technology as part of the deal.)

Sensors monitoring North Korea’s atmosphere have also reportedly detected Krypton-85, a chemical product of reprocessing fuel rods. And, unlike the disputes over Iraqi WMD, there seems to be no dispute over the matter among the various U.S. intelligence agencies. In short, there are plenty of reasons to believe that, if nothing is done to stop them, the North Koreans could build a dozen or so nuclear weapons over the next year and many more in the years to follow.

So, to come back to the original question: Why are the North Koreans going out of their way to repeat — three times now, in the last two days — what they’ve said several times already?

GETTING NERVOUS?

A likely answer is that Kim Jong-il is getting nervous. Since the summer, things have not been going well for the “dear leader” of Pyongyang. In August, Russia — one of his most reliable allies — joined Japan and South Korea for an unprecedented 10-day naval exercise that looked suspiciously like a rehearsal for a blockade of North Korea. At the first round of the six-party disarmament talks, a couple of weeks later, all the other five countries’ negotiators — whom he usually manages to divide and splinter — remained remarkably unified in demanding that he dismantle his nuclear-weapons program. The five leaders have also seemed, from Kim’s viewpoint, all too confident that he’ll send his diplomats back to the tables for the next round of talks.

Jack Pritchard, for years the chief U.S. negotiator in talks with Pyongyang until he resigned last August, partly on grounds that the Bush administration wasn’t letting him do his job, put it this way in a phone interview Friday: “The North Koreans are saying, ‘Don’t take us for granted.’ ” Pritchard, who now works at the Brookings Institution, added, “They want to emphasize that they’re in control of the pace — not the United States — and that, if they decide the six-party talks are not going to result in a resolution of their concerns, they will move more quickly toward becoming a nuclear power.”

In one sense, then, the North Koreans are engaging in their usual guerrilla-style negotiating tactics — “drama and catastrophe,” as Scott Snyder, author of the best book about North Korea’s bargaining behavior, described them. However, in another sense, the decisive moment is drawing near — the point when the threat turns from mere theatrics to a nightmare come true.

TIME OF RECKONINGIt may be the last call to settle this thing. For most of the past year, when the nuclear crisis of the mid-’90s began to replay itself, North Korea’s ambitions could have been contained through serious negotiations. But Bush demurred, preferring to let Kim’s regime crumble rather than rewarding it for bad behavior. (“They can’t eat plutonium,” Bush said, seemingly unaware that Kim doesn’t care if his people starve.) Now Kim is still here, and he’s on the verge of churning out A-bombs. Nobody outside North Korea has the slightest idea where Kim is storing the one or two nukes that he has (or, for that matter, whether he has them).

For that reason alone, a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s reactors is seen, by even hawkish advisers, as too risky. Once Kim has amassed a half-dozen or so, the notion of effective military action-or even diplomatic pressure-becomes less plausible still. And so does a meaningful, verifiable disarmament accord.


Fred Kaplan writes the “War Stories” column for Slate.

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