The waiting game

April 27, 2003

WE'VE ALREADY got atomic weapons, a North Korean envoy whispered to a U.S. diplomat in Beijing last week, strongly implying tests or sales could be the next escalation for the horrible little state. Talks among the two countries and China broke off early.

What to do?

As frightening as the prospect of Kim Jong Il gone nuclear - for now perhaps still a bluff - the best course is recommitment to the firm patience that the Bush administration has been showing. The worst response would be military action.

For starters, that's because America's options remain limited. There's no military option - including a strike on the North's suspected nuclear facilities --- that might not lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans (and many Americans) in Seoul. And there's not likely to be a diplomatic solution unless the North's neighbors - particularly China and South Korea - shift to putting the economic screws to the failed Stalinist regime.

That could include China curtailing aid, the South dropping its "sunshine" policy of engaging the North, and a regional economic blockade - cutting off Mr. Kim from his lifeline of weapon and drug sales.

The silver lining is that the latest cloud from the North likely moved both China and South Korean closer to that stance. The very fact of the talks, after months of provocations by the North, was a breakthrough, and it came after China temporarily shut down a major oil line to the North. As mediator, China's prestige was on the line last week, and the North let it down.

China is firmly on the record for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. It also doesn't want an East Asian arms race in which Japan and Taiwan might go nuclear. That ball's been in China's court for months now, and as cautious as the new set of Chinese leaders may be, the North's latest threat could jar them more fully into the game.

In South Korea, too, there was immediate talk that its new president, Roh Moo Hyun, won't be able to sustain his commitment to sunshine for the North. Having grown up in peace under the American military shield, South Korea's new generations may no longer believe the North is not a threat.

For the United States, the most immediate dangers may lie not on the Korean peninsula but in Washington - from hard-core hawks who've been arguing the North is prime for military-induced regime change. But this isn't Iraq. The North's large army is minutes away from Seoul and, by air, nervous Japan. China, sensitive to American power in its claimed sphere of influence, is right next door. And last but not least, the North lacks any legal means of supporting itself. The end may be years away, but it might come from Mr. Kim bringing his nation to a chaotic collapse - that would pose its own regional hazards.

This is an extremely tough waiting game, one requiring the United States to show the true measure of its powers in the form of remarkable patience.

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