CBS News has learned that the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific is seeking the deployment of more troops and warplanes in response to provocative new moves by North Korea.
The request for additional troops comes as satellite photos show North Korea could be about to start reprocessing spent uranium fuel rods into weapons grade plutonium, CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reports.
The U.S. commander in the Pacific asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for about 2,000 troops, mostly Air Force personnel, to back up the 37,000 already stationed in South Korea.
Two dozen long range bombers – B-52s and B-1s – would be moved to the Pacific island of Guam, in range of targets in Korea. Eight F-15e fighter-bombers plus U-2s and other reconnaissance aircraft would be added to U.S. forces in Japan and Korea.
Officials caution that Secretary Rumsfeld has not yet approved the buildup and that no military action is imminent. But the request for forces is a clear sign the Bush administration is no longer counting on diplomacy alone to handle the building crisis with North Korea.
The satellite photos of the North Korean nuclear complex at Yongbyon show activity at both a building where spent fuel rods are stored and the nearby reprocessing facility where weapons-grade plutonium can be extracted from the uranium.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer would not comment on the reports Friday, but warned Pyongyang against taking "another provocative step" that "further isolates North Korea from the international community."
U.S. intelligence estimates North Korea has enough uranium on hand for about six nuclear weapons and could begin producing the plutonium for those weapons in March – exactly the same time the United States could have a quarter-million troops committed to battle in Iraq.
That's not to mention 10,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan, where U.S. intelligence expects al Qaeda and the Taliban to mount a spring offensive.
Military officers insist they can handle the buildup in Korea, as one put it, without breaking a sweat, but it will require a juggling of forces. The aircraft carrier now assigned to Korea is also included in the war plans for Iraq, so the Pentagon will have to send another carrier to take its place.
The Yongbyon plant is at the center of the current nuclear dispute. The plant was padlocked under a 1994 deal, in which the United States called off an air strike on the plant and agreed to supply the North with civilian nuclear power plants and fuel aid. In return, the North agreed to stop nuclear development.
This October, the U.S. confronted the North with evidence that it had started a separate, uranium enrichment program. The Bush administration cut off the fuel aid shipments, leading North Korea to declare the 1994 deal dead, expel nuclear inspectors and threaten to restart Yongbyon.
The New York Times reported Friday that the Bush administration may be keeping quiet about the suspected moves at Yongbyon — in contrast to its approach in Iraq — in order to avoid creating a crisis atmosphere on the Korean peninsula.
Publicizing the reports could force the administration to decide whether to launch a military strike against the plant — risky because it could touch off a larger conflict. For the North, the Times reports, moving to reprocess the rods could be a bid to increase negotiating leverage.
North Korea on Friday rejected U.S. pressure to "internationalize" the dispute over its nuclear development and again demanded a non-aggression treaty with Washington.
"We are opposed to any attempt to internationalize the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula and we will never participate in any form of multilateral talks," North Korea's ambassador to China Choe Jin Su said at a news conference in Beijing.
Choe repeated his government's demand for a legally binding non-aggression treaty. Washington has ruled out such a treaty but said it could provide a written security guarantee.