North Korea: The Rising Peril

While the United States continues its relentless march to war against Iraq, a crisis that is potentially far more perilous is rapidly unfolding halfway around the world on the Korean peninsula.

While Saddam Hussein hunkers down in Baghdad, under the thumb of the United Nations weapons inspectors and is being forced to begin destroying some of his most prized missiles, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is aggressively taunting the United States and moving full speed ahead toward restarting his nuclear weapons program.

Over this past weekend, the North Koreans took their defiance and contempt of the United States to a new level when four North Korean fighter jets intercepted an unarmed U.S. reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the Sea of Japan.

According to news reports, the armed North Korean jets came within 50 feet of the American plane and shadowed it for 22 minutes. Initial reports suggest that one of the North Korean pilots may have engaged his radar in preparation for firing an air-to-air missile moments before the U.S. aircraft aborted its mission and returned safely to its home base in Kadena, Japan.

Mr. President, this latest action by North Korea is a marked escalation of the recent tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Not since it shot down an unarmed U.S. surveillance plane in 1969 – more than three decades ago – has North Korea engaged in aerial confrontation with the United States. That last weekend's provocation by the North Koreans ended without incident is a relief, but it is not a reprieve from concern. Given the hostility and volatility of the North Korean government, this latest confrontation could easily have ended in disaster.

The White House branded North Korea's actions as "reckless behavior," and the Pentagon promptly dispatched 24 long range bombers to Guam in a move that was seen by some as a not-so-subtle warning to Kim Jong Il that a military response to North Korea's increasing bellicosity is not outside the realm of possibility. But the President has given no indication that he is willing to address the North Korean crisis head-on by engaging North Korea diplomatically in an effort to defuse tensions. To the contrary, the White House appears determined to continue its no-talk policy toward North Korea while it focuses the vast weight of its energy and resources on preparing for war with Iraq.

I am increasingly alarmed that this Administration's military and diplomatic fixation on waging war with Iraq is serving to overshadow and possibly eclipse the mounting crisis in North Korea.

Mr. President, benign neglect is a dangerous policy to apply to North Korea. The nation is isolated and its people are starving. Kim Jong Il is hostile, erratic, and desperate for cash. He is also armed and heavily fortified. In open testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 12, CIA Director George Tenet noted that "the United States faces a near-term ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) threat from North Korea."

According to intelligence estimates, North Korea already has one to two nuclear weapons and continues to develop the Taepo Dong-2 (TYPO DONG 2) missile, which has the capability of reaching the United States with a nuclear-weapon sized payload.

Recent relations between the United States and North Korea were far from good to begin with, but since October, when it was revealed that North Korea had a secret program to produce enriched uranium, the resulting nuclear standoff between the United States and North Korea has gone from bad to worse.

In a period of just over four months, North Korea has moved swiftly and boldly to take the necessary steps to resume the production of nuclear weapons. Following the disclosure of its covert nuclear program in October, North Korea in December expelled U.N. inspectors from its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, removed U.N. monitoring seals and cameras, and announced it would reactivate the facilities. In January, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and appeared to begin moving its stockpile of nuclear fuel rods out of storage. Just last week (Feb. 27), American intelligence sources concluded that North Korea had indeed reactivated the Yongbyon facility. The significance of starting up the reactor is that it could, over time, provide a continuing source of plutonium for nuclear weapons, which North Korea could either stockpile or sell. If North Korea also begins reprocessing its nuclear fuel rods, some U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that it could begin producing bomb-grade plutonium within a matter of weeks, a process that could yield enough plutonium for five to seven bombs by this summer.

In other words, North Korea could begin grinding out the essential components of nuclear weapons for its own use or for sale to the highest bidder even before the first volley is fired in Iraq.

At the same time that it has been ratcheting up its nuclear activity, North Korea has also been ratcheting up its rhetoric and its military saber-rattling. In February, a North Korean MiG fighter jet crossed briefly into South Korean air space for the first time in 20 years. On February 24, North Korea rattled the inauguration of South Korea's new president by test firing an anti-ship missile into the sea. Earlier, North Korea threatened to abandon the armistice that ended the Korean War.

And just this week (March 3), Kim Jong Il warned that nuclear war could break out if the U.S. government attacks North Korea's nuclear program, while President Bush explicitly raised the possibility of using military force against North Korea as a "last resort" if diplomacy fails.

The pattern of increasingly hostile words and actions on the part of North Korea, coupled with the moves it appears to be taking toward building up its nuclear arsenal, make North Korea one of the most volatile and dangerous spots on earth today. The Bush Administration's inattention to the problem and unwillingness to engage in diplomacy with North Korea are only exacerbating an already precarious situation.

Under the circumstances, North Korea presents a far more imminent threat than Iraq to the security of the United States. It is ironic that the President has made it clear that a military response to the crisis in North Korea would be considered only as a last resort at the same time that he is massing forces in the Persian Gulf region to launch a preemptive military strike, possibly within a matter of weeks, against a much less potent threat to the United States.

What is particularly frustrating is that the North Korean crisis might never have reached the proportions it has had President Bush taken a different tack with respect to North Korea when he came into office. Today's nuclear standoff with North Korea is in many ways a replay of a similar crisis in 1994, when North Korea pushed the envelope on its nuclear program, nearly precipitating a military response from the United States. That crisis was resolved when the Clinton Administration reached an agreement, called the Agreed Framework, to freeze nuclear production in North Korea in exchange for fuel oil and light-water reactors. Unfortunately, when he took office, President Bush put relations with North Korea in the deep freeze by heaping suspicion and disdain on the North Korean government, branding Kim Jong Il a "pygmy" and including North Korea in the "axis of evil."

Even so, the current crisis might well have been defused weeks ago, before the two leaders started exchanging threats of war, had the United States agreed to talk directly to North Korea, as our allies in the region have been pleading with us to do. Instead, the Administration drew a line in the sand, insisting that the United States would not be blackmailed into one-on-one talks with North Korea. As a result, the Americans and the North Koreans have been talking past one another for the past four months, and the progress has been all downhill.

It has come to the point that, whether by accident or design, the situation in North Korea could rapidly disintegrate from a war of words and gestures into a war of bullets and bombs – perhaps even nuclear bombs. As it stands now, North Korea has shown no evidence that it is willing to back down from its nuclear confrontation with the United States, and the United States has shown no evidence that it is willing to talk to North Korea.

Stalemate and neglect are not effective tools of foreign policy. Wishful thinking is not an effective tool of foreign policy. The situation in North Korea is a crisis, and the United States must come to grips with it. We must open a dialogue with North Korea.

To ignore the peril presented by North Korea and its nuclear ambitions is to court disaster. Frankly, the longer the United States procrastinates and lets North Korea set the agenda, the harder it will be to deal with the situation diplomatically. If we do not act quickly, we may inadvertently paint ourselves into a corner as we have done in Iraq.

It does not have to be that way. It is time for both nations to stop posturing and start talking. It is time for the United States to deal with the crisis in North Korea. I call on this Administration to address the growing peril in North Korea, and to fully engage in a diplomatic effort to resolve what may well become an international problem of epic proportions. We can, and must, be firm, but we cannot remain aloof. We can, and should, insist that other nations with a stake in the future of North Korea be at the table, including China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, but we can wait no longer for those nations to take the lead.

The situation in North Korea is serious, but it is not yet desperate. The window to initiate diplomacy is not yet closed, but the longer the United States drags its feet, the narrower that window becomes. It is time to start talking to the North Koreans. If the United States takes the lead, our allies in the region are likely to follow. But it is the United States that must lead the way. The only practical way to solve the crisis in North Korea, before it erupts into chaos, is with patience, skill, and determination at the negotiating table. Let us begin now, before it is too late.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).