U.S. Weighs Intercepting North Korean Shipments
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration signaled Sunday that it was seeking a way to interdict, possibly with China’s help, North Korean sea and air shipments suspected of carrying weapons or nuclear technology.
The administration also said it was examining whether there was a legal basis to reverse former President George W. Bush’s decision last year to remove the North from a list of states that sponsor terrorism.
The reference to interdictions — preferably at ports or airfields in countries like China, but possibly involving riskier confrontations on the high seas — was made by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was the administration’s highest-ranking official to talk publicly about such a potentially provocative step as a response to North Korea’s second nuclear test, conducted two weeks ago.
While Mrs. Clinton did not specifically mention assistance from China, other administration officials have been pressing Beijing to take such action under Chinese law.
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Mrs. Clinton said the United States feared that if the test and other recent actions by North Korea did not lead to “strong action,” there was a risk of “an arms race in Northeast Asia” — an oblique reference to the concern that Japan would reverse its long-held ban against developing nuclear weapons.
So far it is not clear how far the Chinese are willing to go to aid the United States in stopping North Korea’s profitable trade in arms, the isolated country’s most profitable export. But the American focus on interdiction demonstrates a new and potentially far tougher approach to North Korea than both President Clinton and Mr. Bush, in his second term, took as they tried unsuccessfully to reach deals that would ultimately lead North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
Mr. Obama, aides say, has decided that he will not offer North Korea new incentives to dismantle the nuclear complex at Yongbyon that the North previously promised to abandon.
“I’m tired of buying the same horse twice,” Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said last week while touring an antimissile site in Alaska that the Bush administration built to demonstrate its preparedness to destroy North Korean missiles headed toward the United States. (So far, the North Koreans have not successfully tested a missile of sufficient range to reach the United States, though there is evidence that they may be preparing for another test of their long-range Taepodong-2 missile.)
In France on Saturday, Mr. Obama referred to the same string of broken deals, telling reporters, “I don’t think there should be an assumption that we will simply continue down a path in which North Korea is constantly destabilizing the region and we just react in the same ways.” He added, “We are not intending to continue a policy of rewarding provocation.”
While Mr. Obama was in the Middle East and Europe last week, several senior officials said the president’s national security team had all but set aside the central assumption that guided American policy toward North Korea over the past 16 years and two presidencies: that the North would be willing to ultimately abandon its small arsenal of nuclear weapons in return for some combination of oil, nuclear power plants, money, food and guarantees that the United States would not topple its government, the world’s last Stalinesque regime.
Now, after examining the still-inconclusive evidence about the results of North Korea’s second nuclear test, the administration has come to different conclusions: that Pyonyang’s top priority is to be recognized as a nuclear state, that it is unwilling to bargain away its weapons and that it sees tests as a way to help sell its nuclear technology.
“This entirely changes the dynamic of how you deal with them,” a senior national security aide said.
While Mr. Obama is willing to reopen the six-party talks that Mr. Bush began — the other participants are Japan, South Korea, Russia and China — he has no intention, aides say, of offering new incentives to get the North to fulfill agreements from 1994, 2005 and 2008; all were recently renounced.
“Clinton bought it once, Bush bought it again, and we’re not going to buy it a third time,” one of Mr. Obama’s chief strategists said last week, referring to the Yongbyon plant, where the North reprocesses spent nuclear fuel into bomb-grade plutonium.
While some officials privately acknowledged that they would still like to roll back what one called North Korea’s “rudimentary” nuclear capacity, a more realistic goal is to stop the country from devising a small weapon deliverable on a short-, medium- or long-range missile.( Collapse )