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Last Updated

26 Dec 2002

Source: Boston Globe, April 28, 2002.

US stance rattles Korean Peninsula

By Elizabeth A. Neuffer, Globe Staff

ONJONG-RI, North Korea - Deep in the countryside, there is no sign of wildlife for miles. Not even a bird can be heard.

In spring, the rippling hills near this village remain brown, the slopes denuded of trees. The rice in the paddies is spindly. Local strudge by fallow fields. Bicycles and wooden-wheeled ox carts trundle along the one paved road.

This is a desolate, impoverished land, so repressive that none dare speak freely, so controlling that transistor radio dials are fixed to receive only government channels.

But North Korea is also the isolated communist dictatorship that President George W. Bush has placed on his ''axis of evil'' - a nation suspected of having the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction such as cannot be tolerated in a post-Sept. 11 world.

With deadlines approaching over the next few months for a key US-North Korea nuclear accord, Washington is pushing hard to make North Korea disarm. This month, the Bush administration sent a message through a South Korean envoy to the North that it must halt development and export of dangerous weapons - or face the consequences.

Two of the administration's biggest fears are that North Korea might be developing a nuclear missile capable of threatening the West Coast, and that it might export nuclear weapons to US adversaries.

But Washington's get-tough stance has distressed the South Korean government, has rattled North-South relations, and has escalated fears of military confrontation between the United States and North Korea.

''We cannot afford another crisis on the Korean peninsula,'' said Moon Chung In of South Korea's Yonsei University, an adviser to his government on the North. ''North Korea is frightened and confused about this `axis of evil.'''

A North Korean guide, working just north of the demilitarized zone, seemed both puzzled and outraged. ''Why put us on the `axis of evil?''' he asked a visitor. ''We haven't threatened you.''

The United States has long maintained an economic embargo against North Korea. It also classifies Pyongyang's leadership as supportive of terrorism, which makes it ineligible for World Bank and other loans.

The Clinton administration tried negotiations to persuade the North to disarm. But President Bush's State of the Union address on Jan. 29th - in which he said North Korea, Iran, and Iraq form an ''axis of evil'' that threatens world security - represented such a shift that it was immediately interpreted on the Korean peninsula as a military threat.

In the South, where President Kim Dae Jung is pursuing a ''sunshine policy'' of easing North-South tensions through dialogue and aid, demonstrators reacted by staging the biggest anti-American protests in a decade.

In the North, Kim Jong Il condemned Bush's speech, and turned a cold shoulder toward South Korea, with which it had broken off talks in 2001. That raised the specter of a permanent North-South rift, dampening hopes that the 2000 summit between the two Korean leaders might lead to the peninsula's reunification.

Those concerns eased this month, when a South Korean presidential envoy finally met with the reclusive Kim Jong Il. But the meeting did not ease fears of a US-North Korea showdown. An envoy, Lim Dong Wong, said he carried a message to the North warning that if diplomacy fails, ''the US is prepared to resort to military means to counter proliferation.''

Last week, however, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Washington would respond to signals from North Korea that it is willing to reopen talks about a 1994 nuclear framework agreement. Relations between Pyongyang and Washington hinge on that accord, which seeks to persuade the North to halt its nuclear program in exchange for having a US-led consortium build two light-water reactors. The reactors would double the country's faltering electricity supply.

North Korea's compliance with the accord seems to be mixed. It stopped work at its Yongbyon nuclear facility, but it has prevented UN inspectors from removing fuel rods and determining if plutonium had been diverted for military use.

The CIA says the North had diverted enough plutonium for one, and possibly two, bombs. Last August, the defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld went further, estimating that ''two to three, maybe even four to five nuclear warheads'' might have been made.

Questions have also been raised about possible nuclear activity at underground sites. The Bush administration, which refused last month to certify that North Korea had adhered to the 1994 agreement, now wants compliance with it immediately.

''If North Korea is serious, they need to start fairly quickly,'' a US official said in South Korea.

But many South Koreans have voiced doubt about the wisdom of this approach. In fact, questions of what weapons of mass destruction that North Korea possesses are divisive in South Korea, particularly in a presidential election year.

On the conventional side, Few South Koreans doubt the threat from the North. A mere hour's drive from the South Korean capital of Seoul is the demilitarized zone, a 151-mile barbed-wire reminder, bristling with soldiers and weapons, that the two Koreas, after 50 years, still have only a strained cease-fire. Within 90 miles of the DMZ stands 70 percent of North Korea's army - 1.2 million soldiers - as well as thousands of artillery and hundreds of multiple-launch rocket systems, capable of instantly hitting Seoul.

Nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons would make that formidable conventional threat much more dangerous.

But the North's military might is layered atop a population that lives in almost unimaginable poverty. About 2 million North Koreans are believed to have died of famine in the mid-1990s. North Korea's 23 million citizens have a per-capita income of $1,000,compared with the $13,000 of the 41 million South Koreans.

Some specialists ask whether such a nation can really be a threat. ''The country is in serious trouble,'' said Hamm Taik Young, a specialist on North Korea at Kyungnam University in Seoul. ''Their military equipment is obsolete, they have no fuel, and no spare parts. And we have little reliable information about their weapons of mass destruction.''

What little visitors can see would seem to show a bleak, backward land. (American journalists can visit North Korea only as part of a South Korean hiking tour to Mount Kumgang, just north of the border).

Villages at night lie in darkness, with no electricity. Smoke rises from chimneys, the country's timber gone to wood fires. There is little livestock, few crops, and birds have flown elsewhere for food. It is as if anything that could be consumed left long ago.

''It is like we were after the Korean war - when we were really poor,'' said Moon Song Kyo, a 65-year-old South Korean who was shocked by what he saw on a recent hiking trip. ''It is like stepping back in time.''

Yet this border province is prosperous by North Korean standards. Defectors and visitors to the North say suffering is greatest in small industrial cities, where 60 percent of the population lives. There, unemployment and decaying infrastructure plague families, stranded in high-rise apartment buildings without electricity. Hospitals lack equipment and drugs, blankets and food, heat and hot water. One aid worker recalled seeing a beer bottle and a hose being used for an intravenous drip on a recent trip. UNICEF, the UN children's aid organization, estimated that 40 percent of North Korean children younger than five are malnourished.

State repression ensures that few complain about such matters. Televisions receive only two channels, one praising the country's ''dear leader,'' the 60-year-old Kim Jong Il, the other the ''great leader,'' his father, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Signs in every village proclaim the glory of ''our socialist regime.'' Those who disagree disappear.

Even tourists can't miss the isolation of citizens. The route tour that buses travel is lined with high green fences and barbed wire; no contact is allowed with the locals, save for guides. Newly erected barricades block views into homes. No photography is permitted. Army officers line the road to ensure compliance.

Behind those barriers, defectors and some specialists say, two parallel economies exist - one for the military, the other for the people. Profits from missile sales, counterfeit money, and drugs are plowed into military development. While people die of starvation, 3,000 scientists and researchers devoted to the country's nuclear program are well-treated. And Kim Jong-il himself is said to live in luxury, surfing the Internet and quaffing imported cognac.

What little is known about North Korea's weapons of mass destruction comes from defectors' accounts as well as US and South Korean intelligence. On questions of chemical and biological weapons, there is little dispute. South Korean Ministry of National Defense documents indicate that North Korea has stockpiled 2,500 to 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, including nerve gas. Protective masks are issued to the population, and the military has its own chemical platoons.

''When I served in the military, I saw many facilities with yellow markings that indicated chemical weapons were stored there,'' said Lee Yung-guk, a defector who served as a bodyguard to Kim Jong-il.

North Korea is thought to be capable of developing, producing, and using biological weapons, including anthrax, officials say. Defectors have told rights advocates that anthrax is tested on prison camp inmates.

North Korea's development and exporting of missiles also has the United States concerned. General Thomas Schwartz, commander of the 37,000 US troops stationed in Korea, told Congress last month that North Korea had recently increased its exports of missile technology. ''They are the No. 1 proliferator of missiles,'' he said. North Korea reportedly earns as much as $400 million annually from missile sales.

US officials also say that research and development continues on a Taepodong II missile, which could possibly reach parts of the Western United States. ''The North Koreans seem to be developing systems capable of launching and delivering chemical, biological, and perhaps nuclear weapons over the long term,'' said a US official in South Korea.

South Korean officials, however, say the North has observed a moratorium on nuclear missile testing since 1998, when it test-launched its Taepodong missile over Japan, almost touching off a regional crisis.

Such different interpretations explain the contrasting approaches of Washington and Seoul. South Korea wants to gently prod North Korea along, believing its economy is so crippled that it has no choice but to agree with the Bush administration's demands. Washington, after Sept. 11, has a more urgent timetable. Bush administration officials, while conceding that they have no evidence of hostile North Korean intentions, say a tough approach is needed to ensure its weapons don't fall into terrorist hands.

It is a stance that bewilders the average North Korean too isolated to know much of the Sept. 11 attack.

''Was there a lot of damage?'' asked the North Korean guiding visitors to Mount Kumgang. Assured that there had been, he seemed concerned. Then he added: ''Bush wants to bomb all North Korea. And then, no place will be safe.''