The grand bargain

February 02, 2003

A YEAR AFTER President Bush talked tough and included North Korea in his "axis of evil," the United States finds itself with few options in dealing with the North - a box, in some ways, of its own making. The best way out would be for the North to trade its nuclear ambitions for survival and aid, a deal known as "the grand bargain." But getting to that bargain involves breaking out of this box:

The North is one of the horrors of modern history, a totally failed regime with virtually no economy, dependent on foreign aid and starving its people. It's run by a dictator willing to do anything so he and his military-political elite - about 5 percent of the country - survive in the Mercedes-and-Hennessy style to which they're accustomed and for which they need roughly $1 billion in hard currency a year.

The North likely has a nuclear bomb or two. It admits to a uranium enrichment program and last week began moving its stock of plutonium rods - the first step toward soon making more bombs. Its long-range missiles can hit Japan and perhaps Alaska, if not the U.S. West Coast.

An even more pressing danger is the North selling a nuclear weapon. (See above: Mercedes and Hennessy.) Great leader and movie buff Kim Jong Il reportedly has seen The Sum of All Fears, in which such a device goes off in Ravens Stadium. If something similar happens, the North would be a top suspect.

Short of its nuclear threats, the North has one of the largest armies in the world hard by 30 million South Koreans, plus thousands of artillery tubes aimed at Seoul. The South, with a massive U.S. military effort, would prevail in a conventional conflict, but not before the peninsula was drenched in blood, including U.S. blood.

The North, experienced at extortion, wants to do it again, using its new nuclear threats to gain a U.S. survival guarantee and aid. But the North broke its last such agreement, and it's hard to imagine Mr. Kim really giving up his atomic trump card.

So how to escape this box?

Strangulation - cutting off more food aid and blocking the North's arms sales to force its collapse - is appealing. But that can't happen without South Korea and China's acquiescence, and both fear the resulting millions of refugees from the North.

A military strike on the North's plutonium stockpile is also appealing. But that would still leave its uranium program at an unknown location, and it could trigger a counterattack on the South. The U.S. military may be able to fight the North at the same time as Iraq and worldwide terrorism, but no one would choose that.

That leaves "the grand bargain," a multination deal in which the North gets a survival guarantee, lots of economic aid and perhaps U.S. diplomatic recognition for verifiably eliminating its nuclear capacities. Mutual reduction of conventional forces on the peninsula also could be included.

This works only if South Korea, Japan, China and Russia line up with the United States in talks with the North. Hence the U.S. drive to take this to the United Nations, which the North is trying to avoid by insisting it will only talk to the United States - a standoff leading right back into the box via the first two options, strangulation or military action.

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