Some of the most secret and scariest work under way in the Pentagon these days is the planning for a possible military strike against nuclear sites in North Korea.
Officials say that so far these are no more than contingency plans. They cover a range of military options from surgical cruise missile strikes to sledgehammer bombing, and there is even talk of using tactical nuclear weapons to neutralize hardened artillery positions aimed at Seoul, the South Korean capital.
There's nothing wrong with planning, or with brandishing a stick to get Kim Jong Il's attention. But several factions in the administration are serious about a military strike if diplomacy fails, and since the White House is unwilling to try diplomacy in any meaningful way, it probably will fail. The upshot is a growing possibility that President Bush could reluctantly order such a strike this summer, risking another Korean war.
The sources of information for this column will be as mystifying as the underlying U.S. policy itself, for few will discuss these issues on the record. But it seems those interested in the military option — consisting primarily of raptors clustered around Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld and in the National Security Council — have until recently been slapped down by President Bush himself.
Recently Mr. Bush seems to have become more hawkish. He is said to have been furious when Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (one of the few senior Bush aides who know anything about Korea) told Congress that the U.S. would have to talk to North Korea.
So the White House has hardened its position further, swatting away its old willingness to engage North Korea bilaterally within a multilateral setting. Now the administration has dropped the bilateral reference and is willing to talk to North Korea only in a multilateral framework that doesn't exist. The old approach had a snowball's chance in purgatory; now it's less than that.
"We haven't exhausted diplomacy," one senior player noted. "We haven't begun diplomacy. . . . We could have a slippery slope to a Korean war. I don't think that's too alarmist at all."
Other experts I respect are less worried. James Lilley, an old Korea hand and former ambassador to Seoul and Beijing, says my concerns are "much too alarmist." He says the State Department controls Korea policy and realizes that "the military option is almost nonexistent."
Maybe. But meanwhile, North Korea is cranking out provocations and plutonium. This week it started up a small reactor in Yongbyon. More worrying, America's spooks detected on-and-off activity at a steam plant at Yongbyon, which may mean that the North is preparing to start up a neighboring reprocessing plant capable of turning out enough plutonium for five nuclear weapons by summer. Look for reprocessing to begin soon, perhaps the day bombs first fall on Iraq.
Dick Cheney and his camp worry, not unreasonably, that the greatest risk of all would be to allow North Korea to churn out nuclear warheads like hotcakes off a griddle. In a few years North Korea will be able to produce about 60 nuclear weapons annually, and fissile material is so compact that it could easily be sold and smuggled to Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and Al Qaeda.
The hawk faction believes that the U.S. as a last resort could make a surgical strike, even without South Korean consent, and that Kim Jong Il would not commit suicide by retaliating. The hawks may well be right.
Then again, they may be wrong. And if they're wrong, it would be quite a mistake.
The North has 13,000 artillery pieces and could fire some 400,000 shells in the first hour of an attack, many with sarin and anthrax, on the 21 million people in the "kill box" — as some in the U.S. military describe the Seoul metropolitan area. The Pentagon has calculated that another Korean war could kill a million people.
So if the military option is too scary to contemplate, and if allowing North Korea to proliferate is absolutely unacceptable, what's left? Precisely the option that every country in the region is pressing on us: negotiating with North Korea.
Ironically, the gravity of the situation isn't yet fully understood in either South Korea or Japan, partly because they do not think this administration would be crazy enough to consider a military strike against North Korea. They're wrong.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company