Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "John Kerry's dream," March 13, 2004

Politics Congress is taking its first steps toward what promises to be a difficult election-year battle over a constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriages. Using the Massachusetts high court ruling ordering same-sex marriages as an impetus, the Senate Judiciary Constitution subcommittee began focusing on whether judges are overstepping their bounds and eroding traditional marriage.

Both issues are sure to play a role in the general election campaign for president, which semi-officially became a two-man race between George W. Bush and John Kerry (cover story, page 18) after John Edwards dropped out of the Democratic presidential chase.

NORTH KOREA Six-party talks on North Korea ended with a bombshell. At least for now it's only a figurative one.

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The Bush administration's chief negotiator, just back from the second round of talks in Beijing, told a Senate committee "it's quite possible" that North Korea has turned all 8,000 of its spent nuclear fuel rods into plutonium for nuclear weapons. "There's probably more that you could learn in a closed hearing," U.S. envoy James A. Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for Asia, told senators, "but the fact is it's quite possible they reprocessed all of them."

That could mean the North has produced enough fuel for eight nuclear weapons. For more than a decade, U.S. intelligence officials have estimated that North Korea possessed enough plutonium for one or two weapons. The first sign that the communist regime could possess more atomic weapons arose during a visit by a U.S. delegation to the Yongbyon nuclear complex in January-the first such inspection in a year. The group, including then-envoy Charles "Jack" Pritchard, said they were shown an empty holding pond that once contained the spent nuclear fuel rods, giving rise to speculation that they had already been processed into bombs.

Mr. Pritchard, now at the Brookings Institution, told reporters the new conclusion is one the Bush administration "has been tiptoeing up to." Additional weapons mean North Korea can not only threaten its neighbors but do so with some nuclear hardware left over to sell. Experts have long warned that dictator Kim Jong Il could sell part of his nuclear arsenal to raise cash for the impoverished country. Mr. Pritchard said the administration should treat the North Korea issue more urgently and not wait months to hold more six-party negotiations.

SOUTH KOREA With the new urgency about North Korea's potential nuclear arsenal, South Korea still wants to talk it out. Seoul's delegation to the six-party talks urged the Bush administration to take no new action against North Korea until another round of talks reconvenes, probably before June.

Seoul further signaled that it is committed to a soft stand toward the communist North, warning the European Union that it will abstain from any resolution against North Korea at this month's UN Commission on Human Rights.

Not all South Koreans are taking their government's appeasement sitting down. More than 20,000 Korean War veterans, church organizations, human-rights activists, and North Korean defectors turned out to protest at City Hall Plaza in Seoul on March 1. Organizers released an unsigned analysis of the nuclear threat written by a North Korean defector. It read, "North Korea is not developing nuclear weapons as a display. They mean to possess nukes in order to lead the Kim Jong Il regime to victory." Appeasement advocates, according to the paper, "don't fully understand the North Korea situation.... Kim Jong Il is not stupid enough to let the regime collapse."

RUSSIA Russia is preparing for its fourth presidential election since the breakup of the Soviet Union, but analysts say the March 14 vote is not an indication that a stable democracy is developing.

In addition to taking over the last major non-state-run television network and the country's most successful private oil conglomerate, President Vladimir Putin also reportedly manipulated parliamentary elections last year, according to international monitors. On Feb. 24, Mr. Putin sacked his entire cabinet and, certain of his reelection, promised to replace it before next week's election.

Mr. Putin calls this "managed democracy," but Western observers use such phrases as "electoral autocratic regime" and "a stable kleptocracy." "I think Putin overplayed his hand. He is making it so obvious that nobody has a chance of winning that he has turned these elections into a farce," said Russia analyst and former Reagan aide Larry Uzzell. "What we are seeing is the slow but steady consolidation of power into the hands of one man" (story, p. 22).

ECONOMY The economic rebound that began last year appears to be continuing. The Federal Reserve last week reported that factory activity rose in 11 of the central bank's 12 regional districts during January and February. The only Fed district that didn't report an increase was Cleveland, where factory activity remained steady. The Commerce Department, meanwhile, reported that after-tax incomes rose 0.8 percent in January, compared to 0.3 percent in December. Most economists predict that Fed governors will keep the federal funds rate at 1 percent, a 45-year low, when they meet on March 16. But Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan said that interest rates eventually must rise.


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