North Korea's economy is down to one-tenth of South Korea's, and is barely able to feed its people. North Korea has no friends in or out of the Communist world, though China remains cordial. No wonder North Korea has renounced the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and prevented International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from putting new film in surveillance cameras. That is one way to get attention.
North Korea has no relations with the United States, although its membership in the U.N. allows back-channel communication. The "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, at 81, is gradually shifting power to his son, Kim Jong Il, who already in theory commands the 1.1 million armed forces.
The parliament is scheduled to meet Dec. 9 to ratify whatever the Kims Father and Son have in mind. Dialogue on unification with the economic powerhouse South Korea was called off.
In trying to manipulate this paranoid, failing state to quit menacing its prosperous neighbors with nuclear weapons procurement, the U.S. and South Korean governments are waving carrots and sticks. The real question they are trying to answer: What does the Kim Il Sung regime really want from this whole nuclear exercise?
This was the focus when President Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young Sam met at the White House last week to agree on rhetoric about a "thorough and broad" approach, and apparently to disagree on its details.
The U.S. is dangling cancellation of annual joint maneuvers as a carrot for good behavior. South Korea is dubious about linking that directly to nuclear compliance. While hinting at economic relations as reward, the U.S. is preparing to seek U.N. mandatory economic sanctions, including an oil embargo, as punishment. South Korea fears the collapse of a starving North Korea into anarchy and the consequent economic demands on itself almost as much as it fears a nuclear Pyongyang.
Dialogue with North Korea is the best way to bring it into the Pacific Rim mainstream. West Germany killed East Germany with kindness after relentless toughness had achieved nothing; South Korea is now proposing reconciliation and a Confederation of Korean States as steps, rather than demanding instant unification now.
Dialogue is not possible if the Kim Il Sung regime relentlessly repudiates it, but the need to keep probing is paramount. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is the most troubling problem in the world today, and the Clinton administration is right to give it the highest priority.