U.S. Bombers on N. Korea Alert

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has alerted American bomber crews that they could be sent to the Pacific as a message to North Korea that the United States remains prepared for military action in the region, even as it focuses on a possible war with Iraq.

Pentagon officials stressed that no decision on any deployment has been reached, but they noted that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was considering a range of options that would bolster the American presence in the Pacific.

The aim, said one official, would be "to turn up the knob a touch on the burner, to make sure it's visible, but not aggressive or provocative."

The steps reflect rising tensions between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang's apparent efforts to restart its nuclear weapons program.

U.S. satellite photos taken last week showed fresh activity around a key nuclear storage facility. U.S. intelligence officials said the photos showed trucks moving near the storage site, prompting fears that North Korea was moving spent fuel rods that could yield plutonium needed for bombs.

The United States already has 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea, and an array of additional sea and land forces throughout the Far East.

But the plans under consideration at the Pentagon would place additional B-1 and B-52 bombers on the Pacific island of Guam.

Pyongyang responded to Rumsfeld's comments by accusing the United States on Tuesday of attempting to "crush" the North, The Associated Press reported.

"In an attempt to crush us to death, the U.S. military is scheming to beef up forces in Japan and South Korea," the North's Central Radio, monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency, was quoted as saying.

The Pentagon said it had put some military personnel on notice that they could be deployed to the Pacific. One official called it a "pack-your-bags" warning.

The Pentagon is also taking steps to maintain its naval presence in the Pacific even as it continues to send warships to the Persian Gulf.

Officials at U.S. Pacific Command have asked to have another aircraft carrier assigned to the region if the Kitty Hawk, which is based in Yokosuka, Japan, is deployed to the Gulf, a Defense Department official said.

The United States has already deployed four carriers to the Gulf region, but U.S. Central Command, which oversees military planning for Iraq, has asked for a fifth.

The Kitty Hawk is considered a likely candidate because it is closer to the Gulf than other vessels in the Navy's fleet.

Another Pentagon official said the naval maneuvering was designed to "maintain the status quo" in the Pacific, and "not to try to escalate or move to a higher condition of readiness."

A spokesman for the Navy's Pacific Fleet, based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, said the fleet has received no orders to deploy any of its warships to the Korean coastline.

The United States has been treading a delicate diplomatic path with North Korea.

State Department and White House officials have been careful to say that the United States has no intention of attacking or invading North Korea. At the same time, U.S. officials do not want to take the military option entirely off the table.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Monday that President Bush still believes the standoff with North Korea can be resolved peacefully.

"That doesn't mean the United States won't have contingencies and make certain those contingencies are viable," he said.