- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

HONOLULU, Feb. 14 (UPI) — Former Defense Secretary William Perry Friday warned that North Korea's nuclear arms program posed a potential "security disaster" to the Pacific region, and urged the opening of direct talks with the North as soon as possible in order to head off a new Asian arms race.

Perry, who served in the Clinton administration, told the East-West Center in Honolulu that the United States' relations with both North and South Korea were in need of repair at a time when Pyongyang was capable of fielding as many as six nuclear weapons by this summer.

"I expect that this could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Pacific region and would be a profound security disaster," said Perry, a member of the East-West Center's board of governors. "We have to do everything we can to keep this from happening."

While the Bush administration has demanded that North Korea halt the ramping up of its previously dormant program, it has also refused to negotiate directly with the North Korean government over what it sees as an attempt to extort concessions for the poverty-stricken country.

Perry said direct talks were vital to reaching a diplomatic solution before the North can begin reprocessing spent nuclear fuel at its Yongbyon plant. The project was on track to produce 5-6 atomic weapons in the coming months, he said.

"If the program is not frozen, there will be an irreparable situation," he said. "We will have no idea where the nuclear weapons are."

The diplomatic course faces some daunting obstacles due to serious misunderstandings among the United States, the two Koreas and Japan.

Japan has a major stake in the behavior of nearby North Korea, which in 1998 test fired a ballistic missile that flew over the island of Honshu. Japan urged Pyongyang Thursday to reopen discussions with the United Nations on halting its nuclear program.

Perry said he fully expected North Korea to resume test launches and proposed that all parties engage in direct talks, putting aside various misunderstandings over the intentions and concerns each nation has.

Military force would have to be component of a settlement, Perry said, in order to enforce any "red line" that North Korea would be prohibited from crossing. He said such a line was drawn in 1994 when Pyongyang agreed to halt its spent fuel reprocessing.

Drawing a new red line would require a united front by South Korea, Japan and the United States.

"But I have never seen the three countries so far apart," Perry lamented.

Perry concluded that the United States had probably erred in refusing to talk to the North and with its seeming dismissal of South Korea's efforts at reconciliation with the North. The South Koreans, he said, had underestimated the depth of U.S. security concerns in the region.

Nevertheless, Perry said, prudence dictated that the countries should avoid further posturing and get down to the business of productive face-to-face negotiations before the North's weapons programs goes too far.

"With North Korea's desperate economic situation, the only thing it has to sell is missiles," Perry urged. "Now they could also sell nuclear weapons. If they get them, they might sell them to the highest bidder, including terrorists. Time is of the essence."

(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)

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