- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

News reports that North Korea has reopened a plutonium reactor to restart its nuclear weapons program teetered on the brink of hysteria during Christmas week.
Granted, the holidays are usually a slow news period, but the nightly broadcasts were pumping North Korea's admittedly provocative move into a full-blown crisis, intimating that we may be on the brink of war.
To its credit, the administration was not swept up by the hyperbolic armchair analysis and Democratic criticism that fed media hysteria, which is what North Korea wanted. This was not a crisis for the United States, at least not yet. And Secretary of State Colin Powell's cool, calm responses on all five major television news talk shows Sunday made this very clear.
"We have a serious situation which we are treating as a serious situation," Mr. Powell said. "It is not yet a crisis that requires mobilization or for us to be threatening North Korea."
"Nobody is mobilizing armies; nobody's threatening each other, yet. There are no forces being put on alert on either side," he said.
Turning Kim Jong-il's move into a crisis would be playing right into his hands. Critics were frantically urging President Bush to begin face-to-face talks with the country that he had called part of the "axis of evil," a move Mr. Powell correctly dismissed out of hand.
"We cannot suddenly say, 'Gee, we're so scared. Let's have a negotiation because we want to appease your misbehavior.' This kind of action cannot be rewarded," Mr. Powell said.
But it does call for quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy and a projected self-confidence that we have nothing to fear from an impoverished, famine-stricken country that cannot even feed its own people. That's what we're seeing now from this administration.
We know that Kim Jong-il's communist regime has at least two nuclear weapons. Intelligence agents suspected they were working on expanding this capability. None of this is a surprise.
It's still unclear why North Korea reopened the Yongbyon facility. It may be using this ploy to squeeze further international aid concessions to help feed its people. Denounced by Mr. Bush as an evil despot, Mr. Kim may be striking back to gain further leverage with the United States and the West.
North Korea stands condemned by the civilized world as a repressive, backward country where millions have perished from starvation, disease, forced labor camps, torture and mass executions. Yet economic powerhouses like China, Japan, South Korea and other Pacific Rim tigers surround it. In this free-market environment, Mr. Kim may see nuclear weapons as the only card he has to play in the big leagues.
Whatever Mr. Kim's reasons, Mr. Powell thinks we need to understand who we are dealing with here.
A dirt-poor country that is dependent on foreign aid from Beijing (for food and fuel) and other countries is not about to take on its powerful neighbors, let alone the United States (which is fast-developing anti-missile technology).
We have a lot of other cards to play in this situation, too.
First, Mr. Powell looks to China, Russia, Japan and South Korea to apply pressure on Mr. Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons course.
Second, the two Koreas have made some very preliminary progress in opening up a dialogue and exchanges with each other since their summit in June 2000. Trade between the two totaled $333 billion last year. There are 140 South Korean businesses running small factories in North Korea right now.
We should encourage South Korea's opening with the North. The more nonstrategic trade we can begin to develop there, the more dependent Kim Jong-il's government will become on the world economy, which would be a good thing.
We have had talks with the North, too. Mr. Powell spoke to the foreign minister in July at a meeting in Brunei. U.S. diplomats went to North Korea in early October "to begin a dialogue." Other back-channel communications are most likely taking place.
A common theme in the recent North Korea stories has been the criticism of the Bush administration's unwavering focus on Iraq in the face of what critics say is North Korea's much more serious threat.
But these are two very different situations, each with its own solution.
North Korea will likely open further relations with the South to improve its economy. Yet we should be under no illusions about what an evil and potentially threatening regime it is. A careful, balanced approach to that country is appropriate for now as this showdown plays itself out.
Iraq, on the other hand, remains a threat to its neighbors in the Persian Gulf. It harbors and supports terrorists. Everyone knows Saddam Hussein is lying when he says he does not have biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. The collapse of his regime will be the next big victory in Mr. Bush's war against terrorism.

Donald Lambro is senior political correspondent for The Washington Times and is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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