Thu, Jul 24, 2003 - Page 9 News List

For all its bluster, Pyongyang probably prefers talks to nukes

By Jane Macartney  /  REUTERS , SINGAPORE

North Korea has the world on tenterhooks since saying it has been reprocessing weapons-grade plutonium, but bluff and brinkmanship are the more likely game amid signs it is edging toward a new round of talks with the US.

But the game is a high-risk one, with about a million North Korean troops facing hundreds of thousands of South Korean soldiers as well as US forces under UN command across the world's most heavily fortified and last Cold War frontier.

The atmosphere has been electric since isolated and impoverished North Korea pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty early this year, threw out international atomic inspectors and took its nuclear plant out of mothballs.

But the situation may not be quite so charged as to herald war, experts say. It does, however, amount to the most serious crisis facing the US in its policy toward Asia.

"My basic contention is that neither side is looking for a war," said Ralph Cossa, head of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum CSIS think tank.

"Both parties have as their primary objective avoiding conflict on the [Korean] peninsula. They are not going to stumble accidentally into World War III."

That contention is backed up by the facts. US officials said last week the signs were that Pyongyang was inching toward another round of three-way talks with China and the US in Beijing after a flurry of Chinese-initiated diplomatic activity in Pyongyang.

North Korea has issued baleful statements to the effect that it has completed the reprocessing of 8,000 spent fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium -- enough to add half a dozen weapons to the cache of one or two Pyongyang is already suspected of having.

But few observers give much credence to those claims.

"They apparently did some reprocessing in late April but it appears that they have not yet engaged in full-scale work," said Daniel Pinkston, senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies with the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

"I think there's an incentive to misrepresent actual facts, an intention to exaggerate their resolve to increase their bargaining leverage," he said.

Such statements are a certain way to recapture international attention to North Korea's demands for talks, its goal of international recognition and its fundamental motive that is to ensure regime survival.

"My guess is that this is part of their bluff campaign," Cossa said.

"North Korea wants to show they are able to develop their [nuclear] program further to force the United States into talks," said one Western diplomat. "Maybe that's their reasoning, but the other side doesn't see that as a good strategy."

Pyongyang and reclusive leader Kim Jong-il risk overplaying their hand with statements that could alienate neighbors who retain some sympathies for the isolated country's plight.

China, Russia and South Korea all fiercely oppose the presence of nuclear arms on the Korean Peninsula and such boasts by Pyongyang serve to alienate Kim's few friends and push them closer to the US circle.

"Every time North Korea inches closer to admitting that it has nuclear weapons, it makes it harder for any responsible member of the international community to argue its case," Cossa wrote recently.

As few as three options exist to solve the crisis. War -- which most rule out as too costly for all sides. Doing nothing -- a choice the administration of US President George W. Bush may favor since it leaves Pyongyang to issue more and more desperate statements and thus anger its few friends.

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