Anatomy of a Nuclear Crisis

March 26, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

With world communism collapsed, weapons proliferation is the most urgent threat to world peace.

The U.S. is one of the biggest offenders in arms sales to the Third World, which weakens its moral tone when chiding others.

Nuclear weapons constitute only one dimension of the threat. As Saddam Hussein of Iraq has shown, chemical and biological weapons are the poor nation's weapons of mass destruction.

Sgt. Lee Chung Guk, who defected from North Korea, said in South Korea this week, ''Senior officers of our unit told us that we have the strongest toxic weapons in the world and we must be proud of it.''

If that is true, North Korea's acquisition of nuclear bombs -- Jane's Intelligence Review of London estimates it has enough plutonium for two -- would hardly increase its menace.

North Korea's current delivery range is limited. So its missile research and development is as alarming as its nuclear program.

While North Korea's people are hungry and its economy is shrinking, its regular army is nearly twice as large as that of South Korea, which has twice the population and 14 times the gross national product. North Korea is a classic case, in author Paul Kennedy's formula, of a nation weakening itself through military overspending. Still, nuclear development by North Korea more alarming than that of Israel, South Africa, India and Pakistan. These gained nuclear capability without the U.S. making a crisis.

North Korea's regime is sometimes called irrational. It is, rather, mysterious. (Arguably, ours is irrational.) Kim Il Sung at 81 is the last tyrant anointed by Josef Stalin, when Bill Clinton was 2 years old. Whether he is still running things is not known. Whether his son and heir, Kim Jong Il, is competent is conjectural. (North Korean loudspeakers inexplicably started calling Kim Hone Il ''President,'' on Wednesday.) Whether he might survive his father's death is pure guess.

Since 1945, no nation has exploded a nuclear weapon against another. These things are of use when known about, and feared.

If North Korea has the Bomb, it might wish us to know. But if it hasn't, it might wish us not to know. Its motive since announcing last March that it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is readable either way.

But it grabs the Clinton administration's attention, which is not easy. The U.S., as the world's policeman, is demanding that North Korea renounce nuclear weapons. The U.S. is not directly threatened. South Korea and China, and ultimately Japan and Russia, are.

The U.S. has been humiliated by tinpot tyrants from Mogadishu to Port-au-Prince. Old Man Kim is not likely intimidated.

The U.S. is not going to bomb North Korea, which would start war without destroying the Bomb which, if it exists, must be hidden inside a mountain.

The U.S. would seek progressive economic sanctions. These are obtainable only through the U.N. Security Council, where China has a veto. Premier Li Peng denounced sanctions this week, a few days after Secretary of State Warren Christopher lectured him on human rights. (Mr. Christopher cannot have been thinking about Korea.)

Actually, China, while remaining North Korea's only friend, is pressing a commercial relationship with South Korea. President Kim Young Sam of South Korea is going on a week's summits to Tokyo and Beijing, where the Asian solution to this crisis might be hammered out.

Meanwhile, his army is on full alert, the U.S. is pressing Patriot anti-air missiles on the South and the North is accusing the U.S. of starting war. Russia proposes a conference to defuse the crisis.

One possible motive for North Korea was outlined by Bradley K. Martin, a former Sun correspondent in East Asia, in a pamphlet published by the East-West Center in Hawaii:

''As Pyongyang knows from the 1970s episode with the late South Korean President Park Chung-hee's nuclear program, Washington was willing to offer both a nuclear-security guarantee and substantial financial aid to buy the South off from building the bomb.''

Now that would be nuclear blackmail. Whatever the North Korean regime's game, it is eventually going to have to say. Then Washington will need to frame real policy.

In the meantime, what Washington is doing is bluster. The people intimidated by it are Americans.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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