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Background: North Korea Nuclear Challenge

July 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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SPENCER MICHELS: The sense of crisis over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions has intensified this month. Newspaper reports last week revealed that North Korean officials told the Bush administration earlier this month that they had reprocessed “enough plutonium to make half a dozen nuclear bombs.”

Former Defense Secretary William Perry, who handled the North Korea issue in the Clinton administration, warned last Tuesday in a Washington Post interview that the “nuclear program now under way in North Korea poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities.” Another warning came later in the week from the chief of the U.N. Atomic Agency, Mohamed elBaradei.

He said North Korea poses the “most immediate and most serious threat” to global efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. And over the weekend, the New York Times reported that elevated levels of Krypton 85, a gas emitted during plutonium production, have been detected along North Korea’s borders, suggesting a new secret nuclear site.

All of this comes in the wake of the North Koreans’ admission last October that they had a secret uranium enrichment program, a violation of a 1994 agreement with the U.S. Since then, they have reopened the Yongbyong nuclear plant, and expelled U.N. weapons inspectors. The president has insisted he wants to solve the crisis through multilateral diplomacy, not one-on-one talks that North Korea has demanded.

Still, the Pentagon has beefed up its military presence in the region, and officials have said all options remain on the table. The U.S. and some of its allies have also pressed the Chinese to use their leverage to help end the standoff between the U.S. and North Korea. British Prime Minister Tony Blair made his case in Beijing today.

TONY BLAIR: The key thing that has changed in respect of North Korea is there’s now pressure here, in this region, from China, from Japan, from South Korea. The pressure from China is particularly important in bringing home to the North Korean regime that they’ve got to change their position on this nuclear weapons program. Otherwise, this region’s stability is threatened. But more importantly, the stability of the wider world is threatened.

SPENCER MICHELS: President Bush addressed the issue in Crawford, Texas, today during a visit with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The desire by the North Koreans to convince the world that they’re in the process of developing a nuclear arsenal is nothing new. I mean, we’ve known that for a while. And therefore, we must continue to work with the neighborhood to convince Kim Jong Il that his decision is an unwise decision.

SPENCER MICHELS: North Korea today restated its demand for a non- aggression treaty with the United States, amid growing expectations of new talks.