Diplomatic Solutions Sought for N. Korea Challenge

World powers are united in calling for a tough response to North Korea's reported nuclear weapons test. Yet military options remain less popular than diplomatic overtures.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

North Korea's claim that it has tested a nuclear weapon has left the Bush administration scrambling to respond. The U.S. appears to have settled on a diplomatic solution for what President Bush has called a grave threat to the United States.

Speaking yesterday on CNN, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. is not seeking an excuse to invade North Korea.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): The president has said, and in fact the joint statement which we signed with the other parties -the six parties - on September 19th of last year, tells the North Koreans that there is no intention to invade or attack them. So they have that guarantee.

NEARY: Military analysts say there's a good reason for that. The administration's options are limited.

NPR's Pentagon Correspondent John Hendren reports:

JOHN HENDREN: Although the United States recently reduced the number of ground troops in South Korea, the Pentagon has recently shifted more planes and ships to face potential threats from China and North Korea. Lieutenant Commander Jason Salata is a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command.

Lieutenant Commander JASON SALATA (Spokesman, U.S. Pacific Command): We have shifted more capable systems to the Pacific. We've seen, basically, a focus on the Korean peninsula and some areas where we've decided that a more robust air structure there would be more appropriate - more air power on the Korean Peninsula than a reliance on standing armies or more ground forces.

HENDREN: Among the military options to pressure North Korea are a naval blockade by the United States - and possibly other countries - to bar military imports and exports. The problem with that, says Anthony Cordesman, military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is that it doesn't really work.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Military Analyst, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Threatening North Korea with sanctions like a limited blockade or even a full blockade is more symbolic than real. The realities, however, in terms of military options are that that kind of blockade - even if it was limited, or for that matter, total - would probably not have a great impact on North Korea.

HENDREN: Another option military analysts Kurt Campbell and Michael O'Hanlon discuss in their new book, Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security, is striking Pyongyang's nuclear sites. O'Hanlon notes that approach has its problems, too. Two reactors aren't near complete, and the remaining reactor is small and produces perhaps enough plutonium to fuel a bomb a year - a modest addition to North Korea's existing stockpile.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Co-author, Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security): There certainly is a case for that. It's an idea that's not crazy, but it runs the risk, of course, of North Korean retaliation. And the stakes might not seem high enough to justify that kind of operation. So I don't think the military options are the best places for us to look right now.

HENDREN: John Pike, director of the private national security Web site GlobalSecurity.org, says the recent decision to base rotating bomber squadrons in the Pacific island of Guam makes American firepower in the region formidable.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (Director, GlobalSecurity.org): Basically they could get hot seal on target within a few hours of order to do so.

HENDREN: Pike says there is reason to believe that North Korea has half a dozen to a dozen nuclear weapons. They also have medium-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Tokyo, Hiroshima and other cities in Japan.

Mr. PIKE: If the dear leader thought that the Americans were coming to give him a necktie party, he would have incentive to start launching nuclear weapons to go down that list.

HENDREN: Another risk of pressuring North Korea militarily is that it could lead to an arms race.

Mr. PIKE: If you face the situation where North Korea is well on the way to having the world's third largest nuclear stockpile, well, maybe the Japanese are not going to put up with this. They'll cash in their plutonium. The Chinese are going to be very unhappy with that, we'll respond to that. India won't want to get left behind. Pakistan will tag along. And, what started out as just this seemingly small event of a single nuclear test could take much of the rest of the 21st century to adjust to.

HENDREN: The Bush administration's long-term plan, a regional missile defense shield, appears nowhere near ready to combat such a threat. So U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, is pushing for diplomacy, including strict United Nations sanctions.

Analyst Anthony Cordesman says there are few other good options.

Mr. CORDESMAN: I think that aggressive diplomacy and containment defensive options, at least for the time being, are the best choice.

HENDREN: Pressuring Pyongyang militarily could encourage Kim Jong Il to create an expanded, dispersed, nuclear weapons network that makes things worse rather than better.

John Hendren, NPR News, Washington.

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