Sunday, June 1, 2003

SINGAPORE — With impoverished North Korea on the brink of collapse, the United States wants nations in the region to use economic pressure to force it to halt its nuclear ambitions, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said yesterday.

Mr. Wolfowitz made the comments at a gathering of Asian and Western defense and security chiefs that dealt with the standoff over North Korea, as well as the region’s fight against terrorism.

North Korea “is teetering on the edge of economic collapse,” Mr. Wolfowitz told the delegates. “That, I believe, is a major point of leverage.”

He said Russia, China, Japan and South Korea should use their aid to the isolated Communist regime to pressure it.

“Countries of the region that are helping keep North Korea afloat need to send a message to North Korea that they’re not going to continue doing that if North Korea continues down the road it’s on,” Mr. Wolfowitz said.

The United States could eventually pursue economic sanctions against North Korea through the U.N. Security Council. Pyongyang has said such a step would amount to a declaration of war.

A top South Korean official warned that sanctions would only hurt innocent North Koreans.

“We should not cut off economic aid. There is a humanitarian problem: The people in North Korea are starving,” said Cho Soon-sung, senior adviser to South Korea’s ruling party.

But in the latest border incident, South Korea’s navy fired warning shots today after three North Korean fishing boats entered the South’s territory near Yongpyong Island west of the peninsula, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said.

There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

Mr. Wolfowitz said North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was driving the country toward an economic meltdown, which could send 20 million people flooding into China and South Korea.

“If we take a view that North Korea is never going to change, that Kim Jong-il will continue to rule the country and continue to pursue the insane policies he’s pursuing, then it’s hard to see any successful outcome other than that country increasingly heading toward collapse,” he said in an interview with Japan’s NHK television.

Yesterday’s gathering, the second annual Asia Security Conference, was the first major meeting of the region’s security chiefs since the October 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali, Indonesia, which killed 202 persons, mostly Western tourists.

Mr. Wolfowitz said that attack — blamed on Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional Islamic militant group thought linked to al Qaeda — had prompted Indonesia to join the global fight against terrorism.

“While the terrorists may regard their attack as a tactical success, I believe [it was] a strategic failure,” he said in his speech. “The attack in Bali galvanized Indonesian resolve and strengthened international cooperation to go after terrorism.”

The recent bombings in Riyadh that left 34 persons dead, including eight Americans, would be “a similar wake-up call” for Saudi Arabia, he said.

The conference, first held a year ago in Singapore, is the largest forum for Asia Pacific defense leaders to discuss military and strategic policies.

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