Deal redux

January 14, 2003

DESPITE BUSH administration efforts to downplay the latest face-off between North Korea and the United States, it's without question a serious crisis. Among the worst-case scenarios: A few missteps could turn the Korean peninsula into a horrific bloodbath in just a few weeks - with death toll estimates ranging from 500,000 to several million.

That doesn't even include Japanese deaths if the North started lobbing missiles at U.S. military installations there. From there, it wouldn't take much - say, a missile attack on Alaska - for the conflict to go nuclear, if the North hadn't already dirtied the battlefield with its biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, at this juncture, the Bush administration appears to have few options but once again to strike a deal with the North that involves affirming the failed pariah state's security. That's unpalatable, but certainly the administration's hard-line approach hasn't succeeded. And the other players - our regional allies, South Korea and Japan, and the adjacent big powers, China and Russia - have shown they don't have the political stomach for isolating this regime enough to force a collapse.

To a great degree, the Bush administration positioned itself for this. The president took office listening to his hawks, who cast former President Clinton's policy of engaging the North - and reliance on the 1994 deal that temporarily cooled the last nuclear standoff - as far too appeasing.

So Mr. Bush set out to teach the North a lesson, including it, for example, in his "axis of evil." Instead, the North now is teaching the United States some lessons, including that the status quo - the survival of a sick regime - is preferable for its neighbors than the dangers of war or sudden collapse.

For a long time, the North's once Dear, now Great Leader, Kim Jong Il, has too often been cast in the Western press as a silly man-child given to booze and blondes. He and whoever else may be calling the shots in the North are certainly off-kilter - it takes that to starve an estimated 2 million of your own people in less than a decade - but they're also crazy like the fox.

Their ultimate goal is survival. And they've proved very cagey at turning U.S. tough talk on its head - by seeming to take such threats seriously and countering with even wilder threats.

Now, the delicate diplomatic task is a deal in which both sides can claim the other blinked first. Ironically, if the United States essentially ends up offering a no-attack pledge and energy aid, the North apparently believes it can rely on the Americans' word. Would that the United States could have the same faith in North Korea.

That was the great weakness of the 1994 deal struck by former President Carter: It was not strong enough to remove the potential nuclear threats from the North - in part by allowing the North to retain control of a sizable stash of plutonium for which it never has had to account. This time around, having more or less come full circle since 1994, perhaps the best for which the United States can hope is not making the same mistakes at the bargaining table.

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