Much Ado about a Phantom Bomb

June 16, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — I presume I am not the only person having difficulty understanding why North Korea and the nuclear bomb have become the issue of the hour and the latest test of President Clinton's ''resolve.''

The North Koreans appear to have given themselves the necessary plutonium to make a nuclear bomb. But they are generally acknowledged to be far from actually making one. They lack the long-distance missile delivery system to use it strategically, nor has anybody yet provided a plausible scenario of how they could usefully exploit its possession.

The principal lesson of 50 years in the nuclear age is that deterrence functions. The United States and the Soviet Union bent some of their better minds throughout that half-century to finding some way to make positive use of the bomb. The best they could do was elaborate ways by which one side blocked the use of the bomb by the other side in what both recognized would in any case be mutual catastrophe.

Ah, yes, say those impassioned by this issue: But what about irrational leaders, madmen, terrorists who do not count the cost? North Korea supposedly will sell its putative bomb to ''rogue regimes.'' Iran, Iraq and Libya are those usually mentioned.

But what will rogue regimes do with these bombs? If they put them in missiles or airplanes and bomb others, they cannot avoid being bombed in turn. The motivation of those rogue leaders with whom we have acquaintance has been to survive in power -- as is the ambition of Kim Il Sung today.

One can invent scenarios by which rogues and terrorists plant their atomic bombs anonymously in parked cars under the World Trade Center or alongside Buckingham Palace and then blackmail governments. Terrorists determined to do that need not wait another decade or so for Kim Il Sung's bomb. Plenty of finished -- not hypothetical -- weaponry is adrift in the ex-Communist countries right now. Nothing that the United States or anyone else does today to North Korea can spare the world the possibility that someone somewhere may make ''irrational'' use of a nuclear weapon, now or later. It is pretense to suggest otherwise.

Therefore, what is all this about? For a small and beleaguered country the nuclear option inevitably seems the sensible one. I am sure it would make Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, and his son, the Beloved Leader, feel much more secure to have the bomb. It would not actually make them more secure, however, since age and other events beyond their control will terminate their dynasty and are likely to do so well before any North Korean bomb is tested. They are the Ceausescus of an Asia swept by the storms of change.

And if North Korea is indeed manufacturing nuclear devices, what is anybody going to do about it, other than impose new sanctions, which the Korean regime will ignore? Bombing would appear to risk the explosions and fallout that the intervention would be meant to prevent. An American public unprepared to put soldiers on the ground in today's Bosnia or Rwanda is not going to approve an invasion of North Korea to seize that country's weaponry.

Finally, why is this Washington's obsession when the countries adjoining North Korea are unwilling to do more? If South Korea, China -- North Korea's principal source of fuel -- and Japan are willing to live with the present situation, or prefer their own methods for dealing with the threat, why should Washington insist on taking the matter into its own hands?

I do not argue that the world would not be a worse place should North Korea possess nuclear weapons. If there were something simple and sensible to do about the problem, I would agree it should be done. But ineffectual sanctions, toothless threats and media uproar invite the real risk, which is that of non-nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, involving the American troops now stationed in South Korea from the day it begins. Anyone who remembers what conventional war in Korea was like the last time is unlikely to want to go through it again.

If the administration and its critics want a nuclear worry, what about Chernobyl? The nuclear plant there is decrepit and unstable, the risk of another nuclear disaster and fallout a reality, not a scenario. Western investment and action there could preclude disaster at a cost infinitesimal by comparison with the cost of a conflict with a North Korean regime whose death of natural causes is only a matter of time.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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