A Very Substantial Near-Term Crisis

May 20, 1994

With these words, Defense Secretary William Perry has aptly described the current state of play in the U.S. effort to stop North Korea's nuclear arms program.

The crisis is "very substantial" because it threatens a breakout from the world community's long campaign to prevent the proliferation of such terrible weapons. Note the arms race

between India and Pakistan. The crisis is "near-term" because the contest of wills is reaching closure. If North Korea blocks current international inspections of its nuclear facilities, American credibility will be on the line unless tough economic sanctions are imposed.

North Korea may merely be saber-rattling when it says such sanctions would be an act of war that could turn South Korea's capital of Seoul into a "sea of fire." But the stakes here may be too great to engage in brinkmanship. The object should be a change in North Korea's roguish behavior, not some form of punishment that will result only in prolonged tension. The object should be successful enforcement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, not a confrontation that could lead to the reverse.

Kim Dae-jung, leader of the South Korean opposition, was in Washington this week with some advice. "North Korea's goal in this adventure is not to develop nuclear weapons," he told the National Press Club, "but to realize its Number One foreign policy objective: normalization of diplomatic relations with the West." With this in mind, Mr. Kim proposed the following trade-off:

"North Korea must give up its nuclear ambition and guarantee South Korea's security. At the same time, the United States must reciprocate with diplomatic normalization leading to economic cooperation and North Korea's security assurance."

Were these merely the blandishments of a South Korean leftist? Listen to the advice of Donald P. Gregg, the Bush administration's ambassador to South Korea. Writing in the New York Times, he said North Koreans will cling to their only "high card" -- their nuclear weapons program -- until they get what they want: "Recognition from us, economic assistance from their neighbors and a chance to strengthen their economy." Mr. Gregg chastised the Clinton administration for taking "only a step-by-step approach to Pyongyang, never letting it see more than one step ahead in the long process of developing a new relationship based on a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula."

Obviously, the American "high card" is diplomatic recognition, and it should be played only when there is absolute assurance that the North Korean nuclear weapons program has been closed down. In the meantime, discreet disclosure of what the U.S. has to offer Pyongyang down the line would make more sense than the U.S. Senate's leadership call for early economic sanctions.

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