Behind Enemy Lines

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

July 12,2005

PYONGYANG, North Korea

President Bush and his top officials are studiously pretending not to notice, but here in the most bizarre country in the world, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, is throwing down a nuclear gantlet at Mr. Bush's feet.

Senior North Korean officials here say the country has just resumed the construction of two major nuclear reactors that it stopped work on back in 1994. Before construction resumed, the C.I.A. estimated that it would take "several years" to complete the two reactors, but that they would then produce enough plutonium to make about 50 nuclear weapons each year.

This is the most regimented, militarized and oppressive country in the world, but the government seems very firmly in control. And this new reactor construction, if it is sustained, is both scary and another sign that U.S. policy toward North Korea has utterly failed.

I was able to get a visa to North Korea (after being "banned for life" after my last visit, in 1989, for reasons that remain unclear) by tagging along with The Times's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., on a visit here. The government arranged for us to interview senior officials, including the vice president, the foreign minister and a three-star general. Officials insist that the new reactors are intended solely to provide energy for civilian purposes - and that in any case, North Korea will never transfer nuclear materials abroad.

Don't bet on that. If Pyongyang gets hundreds of weapons by using the new reactors, there will be an unacceptable risk of plutonium's being peddled for cash.

"If they were to succeed in getting one or the other in operation, that would really change the dynamics of the situation," said Jonathan Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Naval War College.

Kenneth Lieberthal, who ran Asian affairs for a time in the Clinton White House, put it this way: "If they get those two sites up, that then creates the potential for them becoming the proliferation capital of the world."

The Bush administration has refused to negotiate with North Korea one on one, or to offer a clear and substantial package to coax Mr. Kim away from his nuclear arsenal. Instead, Mr. Bush has focused on enticing North Korea into six-party talks. The North finally agreed on Saturday to end a yearlong stalemate and join another round of those talks.

Mr. Bush is being suckered. Those talks are unlikely to get anywhere, and they simply give the North time to add to its nuclear capacity.

Li Chan Bok, a leading general in the North Korean Army, made it clear that even as the six-party talks staggered on, his country would add to its nuclear arsenal.

"To defend our sovereignty and our system," he said, "we cannot but increase our number of nuclear weapons as a deterrent force."

The threat of new reactors coming on line makes it all the more urgent that Mr. Bush try direct negotiations - not only about nuclear weapons but also, as some conservatives are suggesting, about North Korea's human rights abuses.

No one knows whether direct negotiations and a clearer road map of incentives would succeed, but they couldn't fail any more abjectly than the present policy.

The two projects that North Korea is resuming work on are a 50-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon and a 200-megawatt reactor in Taechon. The former is now just a shell that has deteriorated in the years since work was suspended, but Li Gun, a director general in the Foreign Ministry, says work on it may be completed this year or next. The Taechon reactor would apparently take at least two or three years to complete.

It's possible that North Korea is bluffing or is resuming construction only to have one more card to negotiate away. But if not, there will be considerable pressure in the U.S. for surgical military strikes to prevent the reactors from becoming operational.

General Li said that if the U.S. launched a surgical strike, the result "will be all-out war." I asked whether that meant North Korea would use nuclear weapons (most likely against Japan). He answered grimly, "I said, 'We will use all means.' "

So don't let the welcome resumption of the six-party talks distract us from the reality: Mr. Bush's refusal to engage North Korea directly is making the peninsula steadily more dangerous. More than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, we are on a collision course with a nuclear power.

E-mail: nicholas@nytimes.com