Published January 13, 2015
The United States wants to talk to North Korea (search) not only about nuclear bombs, but the communist nation's entire arsenal: suspected stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, missiles that can reach all of South Korea and Japan and massive conventional forces massed near the border.
If U.S. negotiators bring up all these issues at talks in Beijing this week, the meetings are likely to become contentious quickly. An impoverished nation with few friends, North Korea relies on its military might as one of its few means of political leverage, and it suspects U.S. talk of disarmament is a scheme to undermine its ability to defend itself.
The Aug. 27-29 talks, featuring the United States, the two Koreas, China, Russia and Japan, will focus on resolving a standoff that erupted in October over North Korea's suspected development of nuclear weapons. A diplomatic solution could take years.
But the enduring question of North Korea's threat to stability in northeast Asia — a menace that dates to its 1950 invasion of South Korea, triggering the Korean War (search) — could remain even if the nuclear confrontation dissipates.
The North's test-firing of a Taepodong-1 rocket (search) over Japan and into the Pacific in 1998 highlighted its military ambitions and penchant for provocation. The North said it was an attempt to insert a satellite into orbit.
Many analysts believe North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (search) was chastened by the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein, and recognizes that a head-on military confrontation with the United States could amount to a suicidal act.
But Washington, which says North Korea is the world's main proliferator of missiles and engages in drug trafficking and other illegal activities to raise cash, fears North Korea could deal with terrorists seeking weapons of mass destruction.
"Postponing the elimination of Kim Jong Il's nuclear weapons program will only allow him time to amass even more nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and to develop even longer range missiles," John Bolton (search), U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, said in a speech in Seoul last month.
Foremost among the concerns of Washington and its allies are:
— North Korea's nuclear activities. North Korea is suspected of having a covert uranium-based nuclear program and has resumed operations at plutonium-based facilities that some experts say could yield several bombs within months.
U.S. officials say they believe the North already has one or two nuclear bombs. South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan also said Wednesday that the North "is believed to possess enough material to build one or two nuclear weapons." However, there are doubts about its ability to mount such weapons on warheads.
— The North's arsenal of up to 700 missiles and its sales of missile technology and components to clients like Iran and Yemen. North Nodong missiles can hit targets as far as 810 miles away. U.S. defense experts believe North Korea is working on a long-range missile that could deliver a payload of several hundred pounds as far as Alaska or Hawaii, and a lighter payload to the western half of the continental United States.
The administration of former President Clinton held talks with North Korea on curbing its missile development, but no agreement was reached.
— A chemical warfare program that includes the ability "to indigenously produce bulk quantities of nerve, blister, choking and blood chemical agents as well as a variety if different filled munitions systems," according to the Federation of American Scientists, a research group based in Washington.
— North Korea also is believed to have pursued a biological weapons program since the 1960s.
— The huge number of North Korean troops and weapons arrayed close to the Demilitarized Zone, a buffer area between the two Koreas. In the early hours of a conflict, North Korea could rain thousands of rounds of artillery on Seoul, the South Korean capital, only 40 miles south of the border.
With more than 1 million soldiers, North Korea has one of the largest armies in the world. However, the country is short of food and fuel, and many of its weapons are antiquated. Its air force, for example, has as many as 1,600 planes, but most are based on old Russian and Chinese designs from the 1950s and 1960s. North Korea does not manufacture airplanes.
Still, North Korea often showcases its military at politically sensitive times. In March, four communist fighter jets intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane off the North's east coast. The fighters illuminated the U.S. plane with targeting radar, but there was no hostile fire.