History Revisited as North Korea Stokes Nuclear Crisis

The last time North Korea tried to pull out of the global nuclear arms treaty, the standoff was resolved peacefully with the North's negotiators hailing an end to nuclear tensions "once and for all."

Now that the secretive communist country has said again it will withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, other comments from those heady diplomatic days seem more prescient.

"See you again," joked the U.S. and North Korean officials after they signed the landmark 1994 accord in Geneva, Switzerland.

During the first nuclear standoff of 1993-94, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton branded North Korea the "scariest place" on earth. Washington even contemplated bombing the North's suspect nuclear facilities before former President Jimmy Carter was dispatched to hammer out a solution with Pyongyang.

This time, President Bush has so far sworn off using force. But the diplomatic task of stemming the global spread of nuclear weapons is just as vexing.

And while analysts point to other differences between this dispute and the earlier one, they say it could still take months of talks, concessions, bluffing or brinkmanship to seal a deal, if any, between the two sides.

"There are different circumstances, but the same old tactics," said Park Young-ho, a policy director at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Reunification.

North Korea first signed onto the nuclear treaty in 1985, but said it would back out in 1993 amid tension over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

It eventually "suspended" that decision to withdraw, and under the U.S. accord signed a year later, it was expected to abide by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

History repeated itself Friday when Pyongyang announced it would withdraw again, this time calling the decision "a legitimate self-defensive measure taken against the U.S."

North Korea added, however, it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons. It also said it would be open to some kind of verification program with the United States down the road. Its main demand is Washington's signing of a nonaggression treaty.

The issue of nuclear inspectors was a main stumbling block last time. And like before, conditions in North Korea were similarly severe. The country, then ruled by Kim Il Sung, father of current leader Kim Jong Il, was isolated and poor.

"But there are big geopolitical differences now," noted Kim Tae-hyo, a professor at the Seoul-based Institute of Foreign Affairs, a government-funded think tank.

For starters, North Korea is believed to have at least one or two nuclear weapons -- meaning any pre-emptive U.S. strike carries overtones of atomic war. Casualties could reach into the tens of thousands for South Korean civilians and soldiers, as well as for the 37,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea.

The CIA announced Thursday that a nuclear-armed North Korean army, with roughly 1.2 million troops, is a more formidable foe than Iraq, despite its food and fuel shortages.

And South Korean President Kim Dae-jung underlined the threat Friday, saying that the standoff this time was a matter of "life and death" for his country.

Another difference is the involvement of South Korea. Before, the two Koreas had little, if any, direct contact aimed at resolving the issue.

Now the South has taken the lead in rallying international pressure and is set to hold Cabinet-level talks with the North later this month. In fact, those Cabinet-level meetings are one of the outcomes of the previous accord.

The current dispute has also flared up while the United States has its hands full with another global crisis -- the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That could either distract the United States from the Korean issue or prove its resolve as a tough customer.

"North Korea is studying Iraq," Kim said. "If the United States attacks Iraq, and the war ends quickly, North Korea may feel a sense of urgency to back down."

Kim added that North Korea traditionally fans conflict in an effort to win concessions from the United States. Pulling out of the nuclear treaty does that today, as it did ten years ago.

The strategy is not lost on the Bush administration, which is leery of any talks that could be seen as rewarding North Korea. And possibly for good reason.

In the 1990s, the United States was also worried about making concessions.

But Washington ultimately opted for talks, and signed a deal that had the North freeze its nuclear facilities and abide by the NPT in return for Western shipments of oil. At least that would stop the North from building bombs, it was reasoned.

Then-chief U.S. negotiator Robert L. Gallucci called it a "good agreement."

"It addresses those concerns we've had about the North Korean nuclear program," he said.

North Korea proved that terribly wrong in October, however, when it acknowledged to a U.S. envoy that -- despite the accord -- Pyongyang had been continuing its secret nuclear weapons program the whole time.