- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2002

The Bush administration reacted coolly yesterday to a North Korean offer for direct talks, still trying to fashion a response to last week's admission by Pyongyang of having a secret nuclear-weapons program.
But it was clear the administration was taking a much different tack in the North Korean confrontation than it has to date with Iraq, a fellow charter member of President Bush's "axis of evil."
"The development of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of these regimes is one that is of serious concern to us, in both cases," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
"That doesn't mean we deal with them in exactly the same way," he said.
Neither the White House nor the State Department yesterday replied directly to the North Korean offer, relayed through visiting South Korean ministers early yesterday.
But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters that North Korea "has invited upon itself an isolationist course," as U.S. diplomats fanned out to consult regional allies about the North Korean admission.
"I can't predict every move that the United States will make. But we're in the consultation process right now," Mr. Fleischer said.
Mr. Bush, during a meeting with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, said he viewed the North Korean admission as "an opportunity to work with our friends and other countries in the region" against weapons proliferation and to persuade the North Koreans through diplomacy to disarm.
During a visit by James A. Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, earlier this month, officials in Pyongyang admitted they were pursuing a program to enrich uranium a fuel that can be used for nuclear weapons in direct violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework accord signed with the Clinton administration.
Under the Agreed Framework, North Korea pledged to give up its nuclear-weapons ambitions in exchange for fuel oil from the United States and two nuclear-power plants designed for nonmilitary uses, to be funded by South Korea and Japan.
Despite Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's assertion during the weekend that the Agreed Framework was "nullified," U.S. officials say publicly that no decisions have been made on the oil shipments and plant construction while private talks proceed with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.
"The whole situation is very complex," Mr. Boucher said yesterday. "That's why we're taking time to consult with friends and allies and with the Congress before we make or announce any decisions."
With North Korea's economy in tatters and Pyongyang pushing for more aid and diplomatic ties with its neighbors, "we believe we have some leverage in this situation," Mr. Boucher said.
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, interviewed on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday, rejected what she called a "cookie-cutter foreign-policy" approach to the threats posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
"With North Korea, we think we have a chance to make a diplomatic effort work," Miss Rice said. "The North Koreans, unlike the Iraqis who have oil revenues to fuel their programs, have been signaling to everybody that they're in deep economic trouble, that they need to open up to the international economy, they need investment. We think that's a lever that we can use."
Bush administration officials also argue that Iraq, in its defiance of U.N. mandates, in its repeated attacks on its neighbors and in its use of chemical weapons against its own people, remains in a class by itself.
Privately, some in the Bush administration take a much tougher line with North Korea, insisting the Agreed Framework, the cornerstone of the Clinton administration's efforts to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions, had been rendered null and void.
But an outright declaration now could pose an immense distraction as the United States pushes for international action against Iraq and would cause severe domestic strains in both South Korea and Japan, critical Asian allies that have moved to improve relations with the North in recent days.
Mr. Boucher also noted that the United States still obtains some benefits from cooperation with North Korea, including oversight of stored plutonium that could be diverted to a nuclear-bomb program.
State Department arms-control chief John Bolton was in Moscow yesterday, briefing Russian officials on U.S. findings regarding North Korea's nuclear program.
Mr. Bolton said after the meeting that it was "fair to say" his Russian counterparts shared U.S. concerns, but Russian officials voiced doubts about the scale of the threat posed by the uranium-enrichment program.
"We are in no rush to make conclusions about these reports," said Georgy Mamedov, Russia's top arms-control diplomat.
South Korea and Japan have said they plan to proceed for now with their commitments under the Agreed Framework deal, although aides to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said yesterday that he will make the nuclear violations a top agenda item in normalization talks with the North set to take place October 28 and 29 in Malaysia.
Balbina Hwang, top Korea specialist at the Heritage Foundation, said the North Korean admission was the "final nail in the coffin" of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of rapprochement with the North.
But she said the news of the nuclear program had exposed a "security disconnect" between the United States and South Korea, with many in Seoul more worried about the U.S. response than they are about the North's violations.
"There's a very widespread fear that this will give free rein to the U.S. hard-liners to go after North Korea as soon as they finish up with Iraq," said Ms. Hwang, who blamed the sunshine policy for creating a sense of complacency among South Koreans about the Pyongyang regime.

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