The Korean threat

October 03, 2004

THE TICKING time bomb of North Korea - and the vexing problem of how to defuse it - was highlighted in the presidential debate, with President Bush and Sen. John Kerry offering disparate visions of what to do. It's about time for such very public discussion.

U.S. intelligence now says the North has as many as eight nuclear weapons. The exact number isn't known, but the threat is such that a recent mushroom cloud rising over a construction site in the North triggered fears of a nuclear test. A missile test by Pyongyang right before the U.S. presidential vote is even more likely, so much so that the United States has a destroyer parked in the Sea of Japan.

As to whom to blame for this terrible fix, there are plenty of targets: the Clinton administration, for cutting a toothless bilateral deal with the North 10 years ago that didn't prevent cheating on a supposed nuclear freeze; the Bush administration, for dithering too long before staging painfully slow multilateral talks with the North and its neighbors; and China, the nation with the most economic leverage with the North, for its too-gentle touch with Pyongyang.

Now comes Mr. Kerry arguing that the United States must go back to direct talks with the North - a tactic that Mr. Bush attacks as having already failed under President Bill Clinton, while insisting that any solution has to involve China and the North's other Asian neighbors.

There are a lot of blink-first diplomatic nuances behind these simple positions, and these nuances could turn out to be pivotal, but the overarching truth is they're both right: There likely can be no real solution without a U.S.-North Korean direct agreement, whether under the cover of multilateral talks or not. And no such agreement likely will be achievable or enforceable without the deep involvement of Beijing.

Both candidates were correct in sounding loud alarms on the clear and present dangers to America from nuclear proliferation, with North Korea as a prime concern. Whoever is elected, it's time for a new U.S. approach to making the Korean peninsula nuclear-free. And the urgency is such that the United States, contrary to Mr. Bush's approach, may have to take the first step, to gain the North's cooperation. But as the president believes, any American move will have a greater chance of success if taken in league with China, as well as Korea's other neighbors, Japan and Russia. Separately, both options have failed. Combined, they may not.

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