White House May Go to U.N. Over North Korean Shipments
New York Times | April 24, 2005
By DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, facing a series of recent provocations from North Korea, is debating a plan to seek a United Nations resolution empowering all nations to intercept shipments in or out of the country that may contain nuclear materials or components, say senior administration officials and diplomats who have been briefed on the proposal.
The resolution envisioned by a growing number of senior administration officials would amount to a quarantine of North Korea, though, so far at least, President Bush's aides are not using that word. It would enable the United States and other nations to intercept shipments in international waters off the Korean Peninsula and to force down aircraft for inspection.
But, said several American and Asian officials, the main purpose would be to give China political cover to police its border with North Korea, the country's lifeline for food and oil. That border is now largely open for shipments of arms, drugs and counterfeit currencies, North Korea's main source of hard currency.
Two years of six-nation negotiations with North Korea have proved fruitless so far. It is uncertain, however, that China and South Korea would go along with any plan to step up pressure. To ward off a confrontation with the North, the two nations have opposed taking the issue to the United Nations Security Council.
Until last week, the administration insisted it was committed to solving the North Korean crisis through six-nation negotiations. But the discovery this month that North Korea has shut down its main nuclear reactor - perhaps to harvest plutonium for more weapons - prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to raise publicly the possibility of seeking United Nations action, a route the Clinton administration took in 1994.
"We are willing - when the time is right, when we believe that we have exhausted the possibilities of the framework we are in - to go to the Security Council," Ms. Rice said on Thursday on Fox News.
But the administration has never said publicly what it would seek from the United Nations. Though Ms. Rice made no mention of it, American intelligence agencies were also trying to decipher the meaning of renewed activity at a suspected North Korean nuclear test site.
Activity at the site in October and again in January led to concerns that North Korea may be preparing for the first underground weapons test - which would end any ambiguity about whether it has the technology to build a warhead.
[In Seoul on Monday, South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon, warned North Korea against conducting any nuclear tests, saying they would further isolate it, The Associated Press reported.]
"They are either heading toward a full nuclear breakout, so that we are forced to deal with them as an established nuclear power, or they are putting on quite a show for our satellites," said one senior administration official, who added that the quarantine option had not yet been formally presented to President Bush.
The White House has said little so far about North Korea's actions, following a strategy very different from the one it pursued two years ago with Iraq. Ms. Rice has repeatedly said that North Korea's pattern is to seek a public reaction from Washington, and she has made clear she does not intend to oblige.
But some experts say the statements and actions North Korea have taken recently could mark a significant shift in strategy: It may now see a chance to build a modest nuclear arsenal while the United States and Asian nations debate how to react. The C.I.A. estimates that North Korea already has enough plutonium for six or eight nuclear weapons.
"I'm afraid they are now more interested in getting away with it than getting a reaction out of the United States," South Korea's former foreign minister, Han Sung Joo, said in an interview last week.
Since February, when it declared itself a nuclear power, North Korea's public statements have changed. It appears to be attempting to establish itself as a nuclear power that, like Pakistan, is now considered a permanent member of the nuclear club.
North Korea's No. 2 official, Kim Yong Nam, said on Friday that America so threatens North Korea "it stands to reason" for it "to equip itself with a nuclear deterrent as a legitimate self-defensive means."
On Sunday, North Korea's army chief of staff, General Kim Yong Chun, opened a meeting of military officers with a warning that the country's nuclear program would speed ahead. North Korea often issues strident warnings, many of which Washington dismisses. But the combination of the statements and the satellite imagery have put the White House and Pentagon on edge.
Administration officials said that even if they go to the United Nations, the White House would not abandon the six-nation talks, which also include Japan, South Korea, Russia and China. They said a resolution could take several forms, including additional political and economic sanctions, all of which North Korea says it would regard as an act of war.
But the idea of a quarantine has attracted the most interest, especially among administration hawks who never liked the idea of negotiations with North Korea. The quarantine idea has been pressed by the Pentagon and members of Vice President Dick Cheney's staff.
If approved, several officials said, it would be loosely modeled on the one President John F. Kennedy ordered against Cuba four decades ago. But in North Korea's case, the operation would be far more complicated - both because of the weapons that the North may already possess, and because the entire effort will fail if China is not a full partner.