- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

The world's leading powers unanimously condemned North Korea's decision to ditch the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but Pyongyang once again is proving Machiavelli's point that, in politics, it is better to be feared than loved.

While the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and all of its East Asian neighbors yesterday criticized North Korea's threat to withdraw from the NPT, the united front still may not prevent North Korean leader Kim Jong-il from profiting from the crisis.

"Their approach is that the worse they act the more they get, and that's an approach that this administration will not be a party to," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer insisted.

But experts and former officials who have struggled through past nuclear wrangling with North Korea say the United States and its allies may have little choice in the matter.

"It's always hazardous to guess what the North is thinking, but they have a very consistent negotiating style of believing they can always get a better deal in a crisis situation," said Jon Wolfstahl, a senior arms-control official in the Clinton administration Energy Department and now a nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"They may lose friends and upset a lot of people, but they also gain a lot more room to maneuver," he said.

The NPT threat sparked concern in China and Russia, both of which Mr. Kim has courted in the past as a counterweight to the United States in the military standoff on the divided Korean Peninsula.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin conferred by phone with President Bush on the question yesterday, conveying his opposition to the North Korean decision.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to present himself in the past as an honest broker in the Korean crisis. But the Russian Foreign Ministry yesterday harshly attacked the North's move, warning it "can only aggravate the already tense atmosphere around the Korean Peninsula and strike a significant blow to universal international legal instruments for global and regional security."

The North Korean announcement also alarmed officials in South Korea and Japan, which have taken steps in recent years to ease long-frozen relations with Pyongyang.

"Our nation will strongly demand from North Korea a quick retraction of its statement," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said yesterday.

North Korea has consistently singled out Washington as its sole target in the nuclear standoff, saying it is prepared to negotiate if the Bush administration agrees to a nonaggression pact guaranteeing the North's security.

But in a rare press conference, North Korea's U.N. ambassador, Pak Gil Yon, told reporters in New York that his country was prepared to defy the entire Security Council if it sought to punish Pyongyang with economic sanctions.

"Any kind of sanctions to be taken by the Security Council or anywhere we will consider as a declaration of war against [North Korea]," Mr. Pak warned.

Several analysts have noted that North Korea's secretiveness, apparent irrationality and readiness to push disagreements to the brink of conflict give it a distinct advantage over more cautious, sober bargaining partners.

"Whether it's true or not, if people think you are crazy, that gives you latitude to take steps and make threats that the other side never would," Mr. Wolfstahl said.

China, South Korea and Japan not only fear armed conflict on the peninsula, but are also terrified of a sudden economic collapse of North Korea that could bring political instability and a massive humanitarian and refugee crisis to the region. The North's very weakness has become a weapon to use against its neighbors.

But others see in Pyongyang's actions a shrewd and focused policy by a weak state that accepts short-term friction in exchange for longer-term rewards.

Henry D. Sokolski, a top nonproliferation official in the Defense Department under former President George Bush in the early 1990s and now executive director of the private Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said the North's nuclear brinkmanship is meant to test the resolve of the United States and over time undermine the rationale for maintaining the huge American troop presence in the South.

"They've been working from a very clear agenda and they're not exactly hiding the ball," Mr. Sokolski said.

"If we give them a nonaggression agreement or some firm 'no-hostile-intent' statement, pretty soon we'll have to explain why our troops are there in South Korea," he said. "The world will also notice that the North can create this huge noise, get everyone mad at them, and still get the United States to come to terms with them."

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