Hardly academic

September 08, 2004

IT'S STILL NOT entirely clear if South Korea's stab at enriching uranium was a significant breach of its international treaties or merely a small academic exercise that didn't involve a lot of nuclear material or anything close to the enrichment required for weapons.

But even if the enrichment experiment more than four years ago was minuscule - as South Korea maintains - its disclosure last week was a blow to the multilateral negotiations to induce North Korea to give up its nuclear material and weapons.

With the long-running nuclear stalemate on the Korean peninsula, any such South Korean research gives the North reason to claim, however falsely, that it's being held to double standards. The North now can ask why it should give up its uranium enrichment when the South also has been doing the same covertly.

The six-nation talks - among the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia - to reduce the threat from the North didn't need any more complications. They may resume later this month in Beijing. But as much as the Bush administration might like a deal with the North before this fall's election, that's highly unlikely. It appears in the North's interest to wait out the vote, given that Democrats have cast themselves as more eager to deal directly with Pyongyang than the president has been.

Of course, neither approach has worked so far with the North. President Bill Clinton gave the North carrots for a nuclear deal, on which it started cheating immediately. When that fell apart, the Bush administration dithered too long in forging its own harder-line policy - giving the North more time and incentive to produce what is now believed to be six or more nuclear weapons.

Under Mr. Bush, the major step forward has been to draw the North's neighbors closer to the side of the United States in trying to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear threat for aid. But there still is counterproductive division between the tougher positions of the United States and Japan and the more conciliatory positions of China and South Korea, both of which would be flooded with desperate migrants if the North were pushed to a collapse.

No matter who becomes president, that coalition - and particularly China - is key to any resolution. Persuading Beijing that it's no longer in its interest to support the inherited dictatorship of Kim Jong Il is the major challenge ahead.

An article in a recent issue of a leading Chinese diplomatic strategy journal raised China-watchers' hopes of that by theorizing that if the United States would simply back off from the North, China would come to fully appreciate Mr. Kim's venality and threat and take care of the problem of his dangerous regime in concert with Japan and South Korea.

But hopes that this possible trial balloon signaled a major Chinese policy turnabout were quickly dimmed when the article was removed from the journal's Web site and the Chinese post office recalled the issue. Nevertheless, the whole incident should underscore for both Mr. Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry that the United States must do more to lead China to wake up and turn on the North.

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