- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2003

North Korea's pattern of "threaten, engage, escalate and blackmail" is well under way, but this time the "Hermit Kingdom" demands nuclear status and security guarantees, in addition to food and fuel.
Awkward and dangerous policy, certainly. But North Korea's objective has not been war. That impressed me in conversations with Kim Il-sung in 1994 during a visit of former administration officials to Pyongyang.
Rather, North Korea has sought to break out of its diplomatic and economic isolation to participate in the East Asian economic expansion that has bolstered living standards from South Korea to Indonesia in recent years.
To do this, Kim Jong-il, today's ruler, must go beyond his recent limited and unsuccessful experiments with capitalism, as China has, and permit a market mechanism able to generate growth, exports and wealth. Free enterprise, however, is anathema to North Korea's ruling Stalinist Korea Workers' Party, and would challenge its theory of state, demanding freedoms assembly, speech, private ownership that Mr. Kim's bizarre and cultish autocracy could not tolerate. Hence Mr. Kim's familiar pattern this time posing the ultimate threat, nuclear blackmail.
Washington is correctly seized with the vital importance of establishing and enforcing limits on the development and dissemination of mass weapons. It defined the problems of proliferation in the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the 1983 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), is confident of its military capability,and has taken the lead in finding a solution. In this sense, President George W. Bush is not unlike Woodrow Wilson, another reluctant internationalist pursuing the ideals of his time.
But while President Bush's muscular idealism seems right for today's challenge, the near-unilateral enforcement of nonproliferation has proven a treacherous business, particularly when coupled with delicate regional political-military relationships.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the twin crises facing Washington today. In both Iraq and North Korea the drive to contain proliferation has made George Bush the point man in an unsolvable problem. But like terrorism, the scourge of weapons proliferation can be managed only through concerted international action and, even then, only managed, not solved.
Neither Iraq nor North Korea present simple military problems, but rather multidimensional challenges incorporating personalities, political/military challenges, ideological, regional and developmental questions.
Indeed, success in either region will require the full support of U.S allies and the American people. And as to the latter, Washington's intense preoccupation with Iraq, the demonization of Saddam, and the military build-up, have left the American people, psychologically unprepared for a war in Korea. Thus, it did not escape Pyongyang's notice that the U.S.-Iraq confrontation was a pivot available for exploitation.
Trying hard to remain focused on Iraq, the administration has moved through a series of tactical refinements on Korea dare I say "retreats". But vital issues are now at stake. We stand at a hinge-point in world affairs, a moment whose dangers have not been seen, perhaps, since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Were the issues at hand different ones, or were the escalation slower, or were decisions taken by a more stable government, the options available would be broader. But with the prospective collapse of the NPT looming, 37,000 American troops in harm's way and U.S. status as an Asian power at stake, this is not the case.
The choices are to downplay the crisis by defining it as a problem-management issue with the objective of keeping the focus on Saddam, ready ourselves for war on the peninsula, or internationalize the issue in hopes of a diplomatic solution.
The latter can be done in several ways. It could be placed before the Security Council and a Working Group created to include the "Permanent Five" plus South Korea and Japan. Specific steps would include acceptance of face-to-face discussions between the U.S. and North Korea within the context of the "Working Group"; in principle willingness to participate in a nonaggression pact; a commitment to renew construction of the two stalled light-water reactors; continuing food and fuel aid, and willingness to discuss normalization.
Moreover, the "Working Group" would agree on a framework that would ease North Korea's access to the East Asian economies essential to its development.
In return, North Korea would provide a verifiable commitment to halt all nuclear weapons development programs, to destroy its current nuclear weapons, cease missile tests, cease the sale of mass weapons, rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty and readmit the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.
Of course, none of these options provides Mr. Kim the status and security he would attain were he to have a nuclear arsenal. And permanent acceptance of non-nuclear status would imply fundamental changes in the regime's internal organization and external relations and is thus unlikely.
Having said this, if there is hope for North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons program, China is key. Not only does China provide North Korea with most of its fuel and food, but it also is a rising power with a major stake in regional stability and has, with the U.S., been essential to peninsular security.
While it would be a mistake to see this as a U.S. problem for it is surely an international problem failure to act is to accept a new, and desperate, nuclear world, a jungle in which tens of dozens of nations, not to mention terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and Hamas, obtain nuclear weapons. It would be a world in which brinksmanship and bluff will undoubtedly lead to miscalculation and use. That must not happen.
Finally, the administration confronts the challenge, indeed the priority, of preparing the American people, for conflict in Korea and providing the iron spine those in the region and in the Security Council may need to contain Kim Jong-il's ambitions one way or the other.

Stefan Halper directs the Atlantic Studies Program at the University of Cambridge in England. He is senior fellow at the Cambridge Center of International Studies and a former White House and State Department official, and worked on nonproliferation issues. This article was drawn from a forthcoming article by Mr. Halper in the American Spectator.

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