U.S. Bombers on Alert to Deploy as Warning to North Koreans
By DAVID E. SANGER and THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has put 24 long-range bombers on alert for possible deployment within range of North Korea, both to deter "opportunism" at a moment when Washington is focused on Iraq and to give President Bush military options if diplomacy fails to halt North Korea's effort to produce nuclear weapons, officials said today.
The White House insisted today that Mr. Bush was still committed to a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Any decision to bolster the considerable American military presence near North Korea was simply what Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, called making "certain our contingencies are viable."
Mr. Rumsfeld, who Pentagon officials emphasized had not yet made a decision to send the bombers, was acting on a request for additional forces from Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, the Pacific commander, who concluded that North Korea's race to produce a nuclear weapon had significantly worsened the risks on the Korean Peninsula.
"This puts them on a short string," said a senior Pentagon official, who explained that the aircraft and crews were now ready to move out within a set number of hours should they receive the final deployment order.
The additional bomber force, which would be sent to Guam from bases in the United States along with surveillance planes, brings a potent capability to the region should Mr. Bush decide that he cannot allow North Korea to begin reprocessing its nuclear fuel into weapons.
The Pentagon's new alert status came as the International Atomic Energy Agency said it would meet on Feb. 12, in an emergency session, to declare North Korea in breach of its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and refer the issue to the United Nations Security Council. Administration officials said today that they would seek a resolution there condemning North Korea, but that they would not take the next step — asking for economic sanctions or isolation of the country.
At the same time, administration officials, in private briefings to members of Congress, have confirmed that North Korea appears to be moving spent nuclear spent-fuel rods that have been in storage since 1994.
If reprocessed into plutonium, those rods would provide the raw material for upwards of a half dozen weapons — about one a month once the reprocessing plant is in full operation, experts say. That gives Mr. Bush a window of what one senior official said today was "a few weeks to a few months to decide if he wants to do something about Yongbyon," the nuclear complex, before the plutonium production is under way, and any military strike would risk spreading radioactive pollution around the Korean Peninsula.
Both White House and Pentagon officials insisted there were no current plans to attack the Yongbyon nuclear facility, the center of North Korea's plutonium project.
But the forward deployment to Guam would cut the bombers' flying time to the Korean Peninsula, and consideration of the move suggests that the Pentagon and the White House are concerned that they may need more power on short notice, even as many forces ordinarily based in the Pacific have been sent to the Middle East.
"We are clearly engaged in a discussion about what is appropriate should we find ourselves engaged in executing a military operation in Iraq," said one senior Defense Department official. "We want to make sure we have sufficient forces in place in the Korean Peninsula area to deter any opportunism."
The dozen B-52 bombers and another dozen B-1 bombers could certainly help the 37,000 American troops defending South Korea deter an attack from North Korea across the demilitarized zone. But American commanders in South Korea have long argued they already have sufficient forces to deter such an attack, or at least hold their ground until reinforcements could arrive.
There was no discussion, senior Pentagon officials said, about significant additions to American troops now based in South Korea.
The White House has never publicly discussed the possibility of attacking the reprocessing plant, and Mr. Bush has repeatedly said the United States "has no intention of invading North Korea."
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