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U.S.-North Korea standoff: A Q&A
by Bill Straub
Scripps Howard News Service


February 15, 2005

The United States is butting heads with North Korea again over its development of nuclear weapons. Here's a review of the situation.

Q: What's the lowdown?

A: North Korea, which President Bush cited as a member of the "axis of evil" during his 2002 State of the Union address, announced Thursday that it possesses nuclear weapons and is no longer interested in participating in the six-country talks that include the United States, Japan, Russia, China and South Korea.

Q: What are the six-party talks?

A: Negotiations aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its weapons program in return for economic and diplomatic rewards. Participants last met eight months ago.

Q: Why is North Korea developing nuclear weapons?

A: The government in Pyongyang feels threatened by the United States. A statement issued by the foreign ministry said the weapons were manufactured for self-defense and will act as a deterrent against U.S. aggression. It accused the Bush administration of attempting to "isolate and stifle" North Korea.

Q: What is America's reaction?

A: Caution. It has advised North Korea to return to negotiations. This from Scott McClellan, the president's press secretary: "I think that all parties in the region are making it clear to North Korea that it needs to end its nuclear weapons program, that it needs to permanently dismantle that program and eliminate it for good." He also said that "no one has an interest in attacking North Korea."

Q: Why is the United States concerned about North Korea maintaining nuclear weapons?

A: There are several reasons. One is regional stability. The United States doesn't want North Korea to pose any more of a threat to Japan and South Korea than it already does. And there are national security concerns about North Korea's ultimate intentions: Is it looking to become an aggressor nation?

The United States invaded Iraq - another member of the axis of evil, Iran being the third _ based solely on the suspicion it possessed nuclear weapons. None were ever found.

Q: Why hasn't the United States invaded North Korea then?

A: For one thing, the United States already has about 145,000 troops committed to Iraq. It has neither the manpower nor the wherewithal to stage a second front. Military action would draw objections from China, which maintains ties with North Korea. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has consistently said the United States believes it can reach a diplomatic solution.

Q: Why has North Korea suddenly become more belligerent?

A: North Korea is known for being unpredictable. McClellan said, "I would never try to guess their motives, but we've seen this from time to time. It's nothing new."

Q: Has there been any criticism over the way the White House is handling the situation?

A: Nothing serious to date, although that could change. Some, like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have suggested the Bush administration should acquiesce to North Korean demands for two-party talks between Pyongyang and Washington. Bush already has ruled that out.

Q: How long has the United States been wrangling with North Korea?

A: More than 50 years. The Korean Peninsula was under Japan's domination from 1910 until the end of World War II in 1945. The peninsula was thereafter partitioned into two zones _ North Korea and South Korea, with the north controlled by the old Soviet Union and the south under U.S. control.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea - North Korea - was established on May 1, 1948, with Kim Il Sung as president. The North invaded the South on June 25, 1950, looking to unify the two Koreas under a single Communist government, leading to the Korean War.

Q: What was the result?

A: Pretty much a stalemate. The United Nations came to the defense of South Korea and pushed North Korean troops past the 38th parallel, the original border between North and South. But China entered to support North Korea and U.N. forces were repelled. An armistice was agreed to on July 27, 1953, resetting the border at the 38th parallel.

Q: Who's in charge now?

A: Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, who remains in power.

Q: What's it like today?

A: North Korea, with a population of 22.7 million, is, for the most part, a secretive society with limited contact with the outside world. It remains a Communist state under the one-man dictatorship of Kim Jong Il. Its military is estimated at 1 million troops, but North Korea faces brutal economic conditions because of its alienation from the outside world and experienced famine in the late 1990s.

Q: How long has it been working on nuclear weapons?

A: Suspicions about North Korea dabbling in nuclear weapons have been circulating for more than 10 years. In June 1995, North Korea reached an agreement with the United States to freeze and ultimately dismantle its existing plutonium-based program.

But in 1998, North Korea launched a test missile over Japan, indicating that Pyongyang was re-entering the arms race. In late 2002, North Korea acknowledged that it had violated its nuclear-arms freeze agreement and expelled U.N. weapons inspectors.


E-mail Bill Straub at StraubB(at)

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