Nuclear blackmail

March 09, 2003

IT'S A HORRIBLY repressive regime. President Bush included it in his "axis of evil." Its leadership may well believe its survival is at stake, concluding that the United States wants to remove it from power, perhaps with a pre-emptive military strike.

And with each passing week, the rhetoric and military moves on both sides make it appear as though war is a growing possibility -- war between the United States and North Korea.

That is, unless the Bush administration -- even as it contends with Iraq -- finds a way to defuse a standoff with the North in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to see any good options.

The goal of the United States and every one of North Korea's neighbors is clear: Keep it from developing nuclear weapons. But it's very likely Kim Jong Il and his military long ago concluded that going nuclear is the only way to guarantee the one thing they care about most: their survival.

At this point, it's reasonable to assume that -- even if the North agrees to trade its nuclear aspirations for greater aid and diplomatic recognition -- it will be virtually impossible to stop it from secretly developing nuclear weapons, as it's been doing under its last agreement with the United States and other nations. Unfortunately, then, the most that could be gained is an international alliance to stop the North's arms sales and induce at least economic reforms.

Taking nothing away from the North's venality, the Bush administration got to this point by bungling matters from the start -- by disavowing the Clinton administration's engagement of the North and talking as if it wanted to teach the North a lesson. Trouble is, "Great Leader" Kim and his cunning crew, playing a limited hand, have been one step ahead all along.

A key U.S. miscalculation involves its estimate of the readiness of China, and South Korea, to lean on the North, thereby forcing it to the bargaining table against a united front of all the major players and the United States. The North, of course, wants to sit down only with the United States, keeping to its line that the Great Satan is the real regional threat and improving its chances at nuclear blackmail.

But China has hardly come around, seeming to strand the United States in the face of the North's increasing military provocations. James R. Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to China and South Korea, believes China is moving toward exerting such pressures, driven by growing discomfort with the North's risky military moves. But right now, China is undergoing a sweeping and paralyzing leadership change.

The standoff -- North Korea signaled Friday it might lob another missile into the sea by Tuesday -- has prompted increasing clamor in the United States for the Bush administration to cave in to one-on-one talks, even if that means rewarding extortion. And there were third-nation reports last week that a form of such talks has already taken place secretly in Berlin -- perhaps with some progress toward multilateral talks.

If true, this is encouraging. Not openly acceding to the North's demands for bilateral talks is not petulant but prudent. At the same time, particularly with Iraq in play, back-channel talks buy time and a needed opportunity to defuse this escalating crisis.

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