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North Korea statement shocks, and befuddles

Spent nuclear fuel rods kept in a cooling pond are seen at North Korean nuclear facilities in Yongbyon in this 1996 file photo. AP file
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When Pyongyang officially said for the first time on Wednesday that it possesses nuclear weapons, it was shocking in one sense — its directness.

“We had already taken the resolute action of pulling out of the (Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty) and have manufactured nukes for self-defense to cope with the Bush administration’s ever-more undisguised policy to isolate and stifle the (Democratic People's Republic of Korea),” the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

The clarity was a departure for a regime that has made a high art of ambiguous rhetoric and flowery political metaphor. But the meaning was as obscure as ever, experts say, as is the reality of North Korea's nuclear program. The announcement merely threw the spotlight back on perennial concerns about North Korea's nuclear ambitions, and the Bush administration's strategy of stiff-arming the Stalinist regime.

‘Sales pitch’ for negotiation?
"Is this an added sales pitch to try to open some kind of a negotiation?" said Jonathan Pollack, chairman of Strategic Research at the Naval War College. "Is it a pitch the U.S. is going to find compelling?" 

The United States and North Korea have been on a steady course toward a head-on collision since 2000, particularly since President Bush included North Korea in the infamous "axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq in his 2002 State of the Union address. Pyongyang has continuously hinted at its pursuit of nuclear weapons, arguing that possessing them would be necessary to provide a deterrent unless it got an assurance that the United States would not attack.

But the Bush administration has said repeatedly that it would not talk with the dictatorship, and certainly not offer security assurances until Pyongyang had entirely dismantled its nuclear program. In a series of increasingly alarming moves, Pyongyang pulled out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, kicked nuclear inspectors out of the country, and announced that it would process spent nuclear power plant fuel into weapons-grade materials.

Subsequent "six-party" talks that brought Beijing, South Korea, Russia and Japan to the table with the U.S. and North Korea have been disappointing, and finally stalled out last September in the run-up to the U.S. elections.

North's pullout seen as logical moveAt the time it was logical for North Korea to wait and see who won the Oval Office, since Sen. John Kerry argued for a very different policy — engagement with Pyongyang as the most effective means of halting its nuclear pursuit.

"Suspension of the September round was clearly dictated by electoral politics. Then they came back to the table," said Eric Heginbotham, a senior fellow in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

So in the best-case scenario, Pyongyang's statement Wednesday was a kind of posturing that has been seen in the past, to strengthen its hand in talks — and the timing, coming amid preparations for resuming the six-party talks, supports this theory. Experts who have parsed the statement say it is significant Pyongyang does not unequivocally quit the six-party talks, and instead only "suspended" its involvement.

Pollack and others note that while Pyongyang's statement edges forward, it does not represent a qualitative change in Pyongyang's position on its pursuit of nuclear weapons — which Pyongyang has trumpeted, at least in part to pressure the United States and other nations to negotiate or to gain other favors. Though it has now explicitly said it possesses nuclear weapons, it hasn't crossed any new legal barriers.

‘The next logical step’
And the threat is not necessarily much changed. From the statement, it isn't clear how many or exactly what kind of nuclear weapon North Korea possesses, or if it is even true. There's rarely intelligence to verify Pyongyang's claims. But experts say that the move from producing fissile nuclear material to producing at least a crude nuclear weapon is not a big leap and North Korea had already admitted the former.

"In effect, what they are doing is dotting the 'i's and crossing the ‘t's," said Pollack. "This is the logical next step in the process, presumably upping the ante. The price (for negotiating) just went up."

That theory will be tested in coming days and weeks as China and North Korea's other neighbors try to convince Pyongyang that it must come to the table, as is expected to happen in the short term.

The alternative scenarios are quite bleak. One possibility is that the statement should be taken at face value — that North Korea is moving forward with nuclear weapons because of real or imagined threats from the United States, and giving up on discussion with the Bush administration.

Rice, Bush comments cited
The message, which cited newly anointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice describing North Korea as an "outpost of tyranny" and President Bush's State of the Union message on spreading democracy throughout the world, may be just what it appears — an expression of distrust.

"It could be that they have got the message that the United States would negotiate but that at heart it would be seeking regime change — not negotiate in good faith," said Heginbotham.

Another possibility is that Pyongyang sees an opportunity to pursue nuclear weapons, presenting it a fait accompli as Pakistan did, believing that the United States won't try to stop it right now.

"It's conceivable that they are trying to seize the moment as the United States is bogged down elsewhere," such as Iran and Iraq, said Heginbotham.

At the moment, ambiguity is better than most alternatives. It means that China and South Korea will try to talk North Korea back to the table. For now, the Bush administration is taking a relatively cautious approach to Pyongyang, insisting that the problem can be handled through a "diplomatic solution," though it is unclear what, exactly, that means. While it can certainly be argued that the White House is hoping for the collapse of the Pyongyang regime, it has so far shunned talk of attack and not pursued provocative action such as a naval blockade to hasten Kim Jong Il's fall.

U.S. expected to maintain ‘waiting game’
"Nothing that tells me we are considering these starker options," said Pollack. Instead, he believes the administration will "persist with a waiting game, and hope that things turn our way, which would presumably entail the end of the North Korean state."

The problem is that there is little reliable intelligence on North Korea, so we could be surprised. "It's possible," said Heginbotham, that (Wednesday's) statement was a prelude to conducting a nuclear weapons test."

If North Korea crosses that line, a much more dangerous crisis could develop very suddenly.