Tailored in Korea

January 02, 2003

WHEN THE international nuclear inspectors flew out of North Korea this week, their presence no longer welcome there, it was a sign to the whole world that serious trouble is afoot.

If the North Koreans launch a concerted program to produce weapons-grade plutonium, they could, in a matter of several months, have enough for half a dozen nuclear warheads. If they're sufficiently crazy - which they just might be - they could then threaten South Korea or Japan with a nuclear attack. Or, disconcertingly, they might slip a bomb to somebody else - al-Qaida, for instance.

The Bush administration played a role in whipping up this crisis, first by confronting North Korea with evidence of its nuclear program, then by cutting off oil shipments as punishment for it. Neither of those moves was necessarily avoidable, but they cast the United States once again as Pyongyang's principal antagonist. Now North Korea has taken this a step further, and Washington has some very tough choices to make.

The current policy is something called "tailored containment." Secretary of State Colin Powell says the United States will bring political, economic and diplomatic pressure to bear against North Korea, but is not considering a pre-emptive military strike. In Baghdad, people are wondering why they can't get the same easy treatment. But North Korea's neighbors fear the consequences of American policy nonetheless. The South Korean president-elect, Roh Moo Hyun, says it is "doubtful" whether the U.S. course of action can work. China and Russia also have expressed reservations.

The concern is twofold: First, that an effective American blockade of North Korea would push the nation into sudden collapse, with unforeseen but potentially devastating results throughout east Asia. But that assumes that a blockade could be effective, which is unlikely, and thus the second concern is that North Korea would continue its dangerous ways while Washington seethed.

China, Japan and Russia all have an interest in stability on the peninsula. So, of course, does South Korea, where large anti-American demonstrations on New Year's Eve showed that most people do not blame their cousins to the north for the crisis.

Is that misguided? Certainly it is. One North Korean diplomat said Tuesday that his country may be forced to withdraw from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and another - the ambassador to Moscow - accused the United States of "threatening us with a preventative nuclear strike."

The Bush administration does not want Korea to overshadow Iraq, and has therefore been counseling patience and restraint, which is a bad motive but a generally sensible policy. Pyongyang, though, seems intent on provoking an American reaction, like a picador sticking a bull.

Washington's task right now is not to drop everything and rush into talks with North Korea, but to find common ground with that country's neighbors; it's the only way the regime there can be brought to heel. There is common ground and there is still time - but it just might mean that Korea will have to become the administration's No. 1 priority.

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