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TERENCE SMITH: The Bush administration responded today to the North Korean demand that U.N. inspectors leave the country. For that, we go to David Sanger, White House correspondent for the New York Times. He’s in Crawford, Texas, where the President is spending the holidays.
DAVID SANGER: Thanks, Terry.
TERENCE SMITH: What was the reaction? What was the response from the White House today?
DAVID SANGER: Well, Terry, the White House has been determined not to make this a crisis, and today they continued with that. Imagine now for a moment what it was that the North Koreans said, that they were ejecting the international inspectors, and that they would begin reprocessing plutonium.
Had Iraq made a similar statement, and Iraq’s nuclear program is no place nearly as far along as the North Korean one is, there would have been a much more heated response.
So the administration’s position is to say, look, we’re going to organize the entire international community to denounce this, but we are not going to overreact or have a sense of crisis.
TERENCE SMITH: Right, but they did call upon them to rescind this decision, did they not, and moth-ball the plant again?
DAVID SANGER: I’m sorry, Terry, I couldn’t hear you.
TERENCE SMITH: But they did, the White House what did call upon the North Koreans to reverse course.
DAVID SANGER: They did. They asked them to end the program, but they’ve asked that each day this past week. Each day the North Koreans have ratcheted up the pressure, announcing one new step after another, that are clearly designed to try to force the United States into a direct negotiation with North Korea, and to begin to get the U.S. to agree to some kind of economic aid. The U.S. has said, and said again today, that it wouldn’t respond to nuclear blackmail.
TERENCE SMITH: Now the U.S., as you say, has tried to keep this at a low level, and yet the North Koreans seem to keep ratcheting the pressure up. So, did this latest move today, did that catch the White House by surprise?
DAVID SANGER: I think that despite their efforts to publicly claim that there is no sense of crisis, you certainly hear in the voices of some administration officials, not all of them, but some of them, some questioning about whether their strategy is succeeding.
They are clearly concerned that at this point the North Koreans, once they begin to reload this reprocessing facility, will begin producing in four to six months plutonium that could turn into weapons.
At that point, an arsenal that may be limited to two weapons– and we are not certain that they have those two weapons– could expand relatively rapidly. The destabilizing effect that could have in Asia is huge. North Korea has missiles that can reach Japan. Of course they can reach South Korea.
And the administration is hoping that sooner or later the Chinese and the Russians will become equally involved in this for fear that a nuclear armed North Korea could eventually turn on them.
TERENCE SMITH: And in contrast to Iraq, there’s no discussion of a military option with North Korea is there?
DAVID SANGER: There is no discussion right now, and the reason for that, Terry is really one of geography. In Iraq, they know that they can strike Iraq, and at worst the Iraqis could shoot a few missiles perhaps a few Scuds at Israel.
In North Korea’s case, there are 11,000 artillery tubes that are just over the DMZ. I spent six years moving in and out of Korea when I was living in Asia. And Seoul is under an immediate threat from conventional weapons of destruction in – you know — an hour or two. So there really never has been a military option, unless you’re willing to take the risk that the North Koreans wouldn’t actually attack South Korea.
Now, the South Koreans have made this even more complex for the administration by saying that they’re going to continue their policy of engagement with North Korea. The new government in South Korea has made that very clear.
If anything, they’re going to accelerate it at a time when the Bush administration basically wants to turn up the pressure. So you are beginning to see a real fissure between the United States approach and the approach of our closest ally and the one with the most at stake.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it your impression that this is beginning to distract the administration from Iraq and from preparations for Iraq?
DAVID SANGER: It can’t help but do so. And of course they say look, we can do both at one time, and we have been doing both at one time.
But the fact of the matter is that that the North Koreans in the space of a week, have moved this from a slow burning crisis to a very immediate one, and one that the United States is going to have to deal with and perhaps the United Nations Security Council is going to have to deal with in coming weeks just as the Iraq issue comes to a head.
Now there is a division of opinion within the administration about whether the North Koreans are deliberately timing this to coincide with a moment when we are intently focused on Iraq. But in any case, whether they are or they are not, the fact of the matter is that the administration now has to deal with two crises in two very different parts of the world simultaneously.
And one could make an argument that the threat from North Korea is certainly a much more imminent one, and the government is acting much more unpredictably than the Iraqi government is right now.
TERENCE SMITH: And another voice was heard from — from the region, China, today, through its official newspaper, criticized some recent remarks by Secretary Rumsfeld saying just that, that two wars could be fought simultaneously if necessary — describing them as hawkish and dangerous. Did that have any resonance down in Crawford?
DAVID SANGER: Well, the Chinese have been playing a sort of two-part game here, Terry. On the one hand they have issued a number of statements urging the North Koreans to back off from their nuclear program. And the administration has encouraged each one of those statements, figuring that China may be the last state with any influence and leverage over North Korea.
At the same time, the Chinese are very leery of any suggestion that the United States might take a more active role right on China’s borders. They’ve always been uneasy with the large American presence in East Asia because, of course, it competes with their own regional sphere of influence.
And so on the one hand the Chinese want to contain the North Koreans. On the other hand, they don’t want the United States to get the idea that it can move freely and militarily in East Asia, where, of course, we already have 100,000 troops.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, very briefly, David, can you sort of summarize what the White House strategy will be to diffuse this?
DAVID SANGER: Well, Terry, from the best that we can tell, the White House right now is going to follow the path of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is going to meet in Vienna early next month and we believe refer this to the United Nations Security Council.
The U.S. idea here is to sort of stay in the background, let the IAEA take the brunt of bringing the violations to the Security Council’s attention. But at some point, the U.S. is going to have to put its cards on the table and say look, this is our strategy for how much we want to confront the North Koreans.
They clearly are not setting the kind of deadlines and timelines we’ve set in the Iraq crisis, and clearly the administration would like to see this stay somewhat on the back burner while Iraq is dealt with. The North Koreans don’t seem to be cooperating with that very much and it’s doubtful right now whether or not that strategy will work.
TERENCE SMITH: Exactly. David Sanger, “New York Times,” thank you very much.
DAVID SANGER: Thank you, Terry.