Friday, May 27, 2005

Pentagon making plans if N.Korea abandons talks

Reuters - The Pentagon said on Thursday it was preparing for the possibility that North Korea had decided to abandon six-party nuclear talks and a top official said diplomacy with Pyongyang would soon have to produce results.

At a congressional hearing, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Richard Lawless -- the Bush administration's senior Asia experts -- kept up the pressure on Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table and promised U.S. "flexibility" if it did.

But they indicated American patience was wearing thin and the impasse could not go on forever. However, Washington is also aware that any other U.S. options for dealing with the growing nuclear problem are grim.

Hill and other officials have repeatedly said the administration would consider "other options," including military options, if the talks collapsed or if Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon.

For nearly a year, North Korea has boycotted China-hosted six-party talks aimed at persuading the isolated communist state to abandon nuclear weapons-related activities. Other states involved are South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Despite an intense diplomatic effort to salvage the negotiations, including U.S.-North Korea talks in New York last week, Hill was not optimistic when he spoke to reporters after testifying before a U.S. House of Representatives International Relations subcommittee.

"We do not seem to have any positive response (from Pyongyang). They have not communicated anything to us in private. ... Even the press releases have not been terribly encouraging."

At the hearing, Lawless said Pyongyang may have suspended participation in the talks to gain additional rewards.

"At the same time, we are preparing ourselves for the possibility the DPRK (Democratic Republic of Korea, the North's official name) has made a strategic decision to abandon the talks," he told lawmakers. Also, the Pentagon on Wednesday suspended a nine-year-old project inside North Korea to find remains of American troops killed during the 1950-53 Korean War, accusing Pyongyang of creating an atmosphere dangerous to U.S. workers.

Reaffirming his warnings that unproductive diplomacy cannot go on indefinitely, Hill said: "We have to start achieving results soon. I don't want to put a deadline but clearly this can't go on forever."

Under congressional pressure to reconsider its insistence on only holding bilateral talks with the North within the six-party format, Hill agreed the United States "cannot appear to be stubborn" and must be "results oriented."

He promised if negotiations resume, "we will be very flexible" in the six-party process and he would be prepared to meet the North Koreans, as his predecessor had done.

U.S. officials previously have had bilateral meetings with the North Koreans in the context of six-party negotiations but these sessions have been limited.

U.S. stealth jets deployed to South Korea

The U.S. Air Force has ordered 15 of its F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter jets to South Korea as tensions increase on the peninsula with the possibility of a North Korean nuclear test.
The radar-evading planes began flying from Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico to U.S. air bases in South Korea this week in a deployment expected to last four months, a Holloman spokesman said on Thursday.

About 250 airmen from the U.S. 49th Fighter Wing will accompany the aircraft, the Air Force said in a statement.

The Holloman spokesman said the F-117A deployment was not linked to rising tensions in the region, but U.S. officials have warned that North Korea may be preparing to test a nuclear weapon.

In February, the reclusive state said it possessed nuclear weapons and it was withdrawing from six-nation talks aimed at ending its atomic ambitions.

The Air Force said the deployment "is part of an ongoing measure to maintain a credible deterrent posture and presence in the region."

Last summer, about two dozen of the stealth fighters were sent to Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.

The F-117A Nighthawk makes use of stealth technology "to penetrate deep into enemy air space to deliver satellite and laser-guided munitions onto time sensitive, high value targets," the Air Force statement said.