By David E. Sanger
New York Times
Posted: 06/07/2009 06:53:33 PM PDT
Updated: 06/07/2009 10:12:49 PM PDT
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration signaled Sunday that it was seeking a way to interdict, possibly with China's help, North Korean sea and air shipments suspected of carrying weapons or nuclear technology.
The administration also said it was examining whether there was a legal basis to reverse former President George W. Bush's decision last year to remove the North from a list of states that sponsor terrorism.
The reference to interdictions — either at ports or airfields in countries like China or riskier confrontations on the high seas — was made by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was the administration's highest-ranking official to talk publicly about such a potentially provocative step as a response to North Korea's second nuclear test, conducted two weeks ago.
While she did not specifically mention assistance from China, other administration officials have been pressing Beijing to take such action under China's own laws.
Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Clinton said that the United States feared that if the test and other recent actions by North Korea did not lead to "strong action," there was a risk of "an arms race in Northeast Asia," an oblique reference to the concern that Japan would reverse its long-held ban against developing nuclear weapons.
So far it is not clear how far the Chinese are willing to go in aiding the United States in stopping North Korea's profitable trade in arms,
the isolated country's most profitable export. But the American focus on interdiction demonstrates a new and potentially far tougher approach to North Korea than both President Bill Clinton and Bush, in his second term, took as they tried unsuccessfully to reach deals that would ultimately lead North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
President Barack Obama, aides say, has decided that he will not offer North Korea new incentives to dismantle the nuclear complex at Yongbyon that the North previously promised to abandon. "I'm tired of buying the same horse twice," Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said last week, while touring an anti-missile site in Alaska that the Bush administration built to demonstrate its preparedness to destroy North Korean missiles headed toward the United States.
While Obama was in the Middle East and Europe, several senior officials said the president's national security team had all but set aside the central assumption that guided American policy toward North Korea over the past 16 years and two presidencies: that the Communist country is willing to ultimately abandon its small arsenal of nuclear weapons in return for some combination of oil, nuclear power plants, money, food and guarantees that the United States would not topple its government.
Now, after examining the still-inconclusive evidence about the results of North Korea's second nuclear test, the administration has come to different conclusions — that Pyongyang's top priority is to be recognized as a nuclear state, that it is unwilling to bargain away its weapons, and that it sees tests as a way to help sell its nuclear technology.
"This entirely changes the dynamic of how you deal with them," a senior national security aide said. While Obama is willing to reopen the six-party talks that Bush began — the other participants are Japan, South Korea, Russia and China — he has no intention, aides say, of offering new incentives to get the North to fulfill agreements from 1994, 2005 and 2008, all of which were recently renounced.
In conducting any interdictions, the United States could risk open confrontation with North Korea. That prospect — and the likelihood of escalating conflict if the North resists an inspection — is why China has balked at American proposals for a U.N. Security Council Resolution that would explicitly allow interceptions at sea.
A previous Security Council resolution, passed after the North's first nuclear test in 2006, allowed interdictions "consistent with international law." But that term was never defined, and few of the provisions were enforced by the Bush administration, its Asian allies or the Chinese.