How to Handle North Korea

December 10, 1993

President Clinton's alternating use of the carrot and the stick in dealing with North Korea's refusal to permit full international inspection of its nuclear facilities is the right approach to a very dangerous situation. He has to keep the door open to negotiations while alerting several different constituencies that a "full blown crisis" may be unavoidable.

First, the American people have to be awakened to the possibility of war if North Korea should develop and use a nuclear weapon or attack South Korea, where 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed. In such a conflict, even if only conventional weapons are used, American casualties could be heavy.

Second, he has to let China and Russia know how seriously he takes the present standoff so they will use their influence with the isolated Pyongyang regime to avert a confrontation. Mr. Clinton's refusal to impose trade sanctions against Beijing may stand him in good stead because of its continuing relationship with the North Korean Stalinists.

Third, he has to alert the world to the importance of preserving the Non-Proliferation Treaty and upholding the credibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency. North Korea's threat to withdraw from the treaty and its refusal to open its suspect facilities to IAEA inspection cannot be allowed to stand if there is to be any hope of stopping the spread of nuclear arms.

According to administration officials, vital American interests are at stake in Korea as they are not in Bosnia or Somalia. There, a regime with the world's fifth largest army is acting as though it feels trapped and ready to lash out. The nepotism-riddled ruling clique headed by aging Kim Il-sung is showing signs of instability. It is talking for the first time of "grim trials" for a tottering economy.

President Clinton has the option of making North Korea's economic troubles worse by sponsoring United Nations sanctions. Instead, he is trying to induce North Korean compliance with IAEA inspections by hinting that the United States might be willing to cancel joint military exercises with South Korea and even grant diplomatic recognition. Pyongyang, for its part, has not been wholly intransigent. It has returned the remains of 127 G.I.s killed in the 1950-53 war and has promised the release of 22 more next Tuesday.

Because there is a suspicion that North Korea may have broken its NPT pledge by pursuing nuclear weapons development at two facilities at Yongbyon, perhaps an amnesty offer might be useful at this time. Under its provisions, North Korea would be promised it would not be punished for what it has done in the past so long as it stops all further work, puts its plutonium under safeguards and gives IAEA inspectors free reign.

Mr. Clinton's obligation to do all he can to prevent another war in Korea and yet prepare the American people for the worst is the most fearsome challenge that has yet faced his presidency. So far he has handled things well, and should not be deflected by criticisms of the hawk or dove variety.

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