N. Korea, Iran: Twin Nuke Troubles

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President Bush is insisting Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon on his watch. North Korea is insisting it is well on its way to doing so.

"My hope is that we can solve this diplomatically," Mr. Bush said of the Iranian dispute in a TV interview broadcast Monday. "We are working our hearts out so that they don't develop a nuclear weapon, and the best way to do so is to continue to keep international pressure on them."

Pressed on whether he would allow Iran to build a bomb, Mr. Bush said: "No, we've made it clear, our position is that they won't have a nuclear weapon."

The nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea — the two "axis of evil" members that the United States has not invaded — are likely topics of this week's presidential debate on foreign policy.

The other "axis" country — Iraq — was alleged to have a nuclear program, but no evidence has surfaced to suggest Saddam Hussein was actively seeking a nuclear bomb. Still, Iraq will also be a topic for debate, as U.S. troops confront a deadly insurgency there.

Iran defied international rules announced it had started converting raw uranium into the gas needed for enrichment, a process that can be used to make nuclear weapons. While insisting its intentions are peaceful, Iran pledged to continue even if it means a rupture with U.N. monitors and an end to inspections of its nuclear facilities.

In June 2003, Mr. Bush said that "the international community must come together to make it very clear to Iran that we will not tolerate the construction of a nuclear weapon." But Mr. Bush has not spoken out so forcefully on the matter since signs emerged recently that Iran could be on the path toward developing a bomb.

The president made a similarly strong statement about North Korea last year.

"We will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea," the president said on May 24, 2003 at a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. "We will not give into blackmail. We will not settle for anything less than the complete, verifiable, and irreversible elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program."

North Korea now says it has turned the plutonium from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into nuclear weapons to serve as a deterrent against increasing U.S. nuclear threats and to prevent a nuclear war in northeast Asia.

North Korea said earlier this year that it had reprocessed the 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods and was increasing its "nuclear deterrent" but did not provide any details.

Warning that the danger of war on the Korean peninsula "is snowballing," Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon provided details Monday of the nuclear deterrent that he said North Korea has developed for self-defense.

He told the U.N. General Assembly's annual ministerial meeting that Pyongyang had "no other option but to possess a nuclear deterrent" because of U.S. policies that he claimed were designed to "eliminate" North Korea and make it "a target of preemptive nuclear strikes."

"Our deterrent is, in all its intents and purposes, the self-defensive means to cope with the ever increasing U.S. nuclear threats and further, prevent a nuclear war in northeast Asia," he told a news conference after his speech.

In Washington, a State Department official noted that Secretary of State Colin Powell has said repeatedly that the United States has no plans to attack the communist country.

But in his General Assembly speech and at the press conference with a small group of reporters, Choe blamed the United States for intensifying threats to attack the communist nation and destroying the basis for negotiations to resolve the dispute over Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Nonetheless, he said, North Korea is still ready to dismantle its nuclear program if Washington abandons its "hostile policy" and is prepared to coexist peacefully.

The State Department official said he hadn't seen Choe's comments but noted that the Bush administration has long believed that North Korea has at least one or two nuclear weapons. The official, asking not to be identified, said the North Koreans also have made a number of conflicting statements about how far along their weapons development programs have come.

Mr. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, have modest differences on how to confront the issues of Iran and North Korea.

Kerry charges that Mr. Bush's Iraq policies "took our attention and our resources away" from dealing with Iran. His fellow Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, echoed that sentiment in a speech Monday.

Kerry holds out some hope that a negotiated solution with Iran is possible. He said the United States and other nations should "call their bluff" by offering nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes, then taking back the spent fuel so it can't be used for weapons.

If that process fails, the United States could try to ensure that the International Atomic Energy Agency takes the issue to the U.N. Security Council, where Iran could face sanctions.

Mr. Bush favors diplomacy, too, though his administration has been divided on how to deal with it. Some, mostly in the Pentagon, favor a tougher approach. Others, mostly in the State Department, believe some accommodation is possible with Iranian moderates.

On North Korea, the Bush administration has resisted Pyongyang's demands for written security guarantees and direct talks. The U.S. has instead relied on six-nation negotiations. Kerry has said he would talk directly to the North Koreans.

The use of military force in either North Korea or Iran carries huge risks. North Korea is heavily militarized, with a million-person armed force and millions more in reserves, as well as powerful artillery that could kill tens of thousands of South Koreans in retaliation to any U.S. strike. If the North does indeed have nuclear weapons, that complicates the matter further.

Any strike against Iran risks alienating more Muslims already angered by the war in Iraq. And Iran has missiles capable of hitting Israel.