Washington issues grim warning on N Korea
By Guy Dinmore in Washington and David Stern in Moscow
Financial Times, London-February 4 2003
The Bush administration on Tuesday said North Korea was pursuing a nuclear weapons programme and conceded its record on arms proliferation was worse than Iraq's.
Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, told the Senate foreign relations committee the US was concerned that North Korea would seek to avoid economic collapse by selling nuclear fissile material to rogue states or terrorist organisations.
Within several months North Korea could extract 25-30kg of plutonium - enough for four to six nuclear weapons - from the 8,000 fuel rods it has stored at the Yongbyon nuclear facility.
But Mr Armitage defended US policy of using diplomacy to deal with Pyongyang while preparing for war with Baghdad.
The number two official in the state department declined to describe the dispute with North Korea as a "crisis", as he came under intense questioning from Democrat senators on whether the administration had its priorities mixed up.
Instead he called it a "big problem" and insisted direct talks between the US and North Korea were the way forward.
But Mr Armitage also confirmed that US-based long-range bombers were on alert to move to the Pacific if needed, calling the move "prudent military planning".
The alert, requested by Admiral Thomas Fargo, commander of US forces in the Pacific, was intended to address the "contingency that North Korea would in some fashion try to take advantage of our focus on Iraq", Mr Armitage said.
Reflecting growing US concern over North Korea's pressure tactics, Colin Powell, secretary of state, went to New York a day ahead of schedule for talks with his Russian and Chinese counterparts.
Russia attacked the US approach to North Korea, exposing a widening rift between Moscow and Washington over the issue.
Moscow said it opposed any reinforcement of US forces in the Pacific and criticised Washington's plan to refer North Korea to the UN Security Council.
US officials have also expressed frustration over what they see as a lack of Chinese pressure on Pyongyang.
Mr Armitage conceded that North Korea was a worse proliferator than Iraq, selling missiles to Yemen, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt "and other places". The US also had "suspicions" that North Korea had spread nuclear weapons technology, indicating that Pakistan and Libya might have benefited.
But Mr Armitage insisted Iraq presented a more immediate threat than North Korea and that Pyongyang's recent moves were seen by the Bush administration as an attempt to extract economic concessions and talks on a non-aggression treaty.
Talks with North Korea would not happen before the new South Korean government was formed on February 25, Mr Armitage said, indicating the US first wanted the matter to be addressed by the International Atomic Energy Agency on February 12 and then by the Security Council. North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors from its Yongbyon plant in December. It announced last month it had quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
US officials this week revealed that spy satellites had shown trucks at Yongbyon believed to be moving fuel rods out of storage. This indicated that North Korea might be preparing to start the reprocessing of plutonium.