- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

It’s a sound principle to refuse to give in to blackmail. But if someone were holding a gun to your child’s head, you would probably be willing to pay a ransom rather than see her killed. Sometimes the stakes are so high that submitting to extortion is the least horrible option.

When it comes to blackmail, nobody is better than the North Korean government. Last fall, the North Koreans announced they had a secret nuclear weapons program, in violation of a 1994 agreement. Since then, they have taken one step after another to increase our anxiety. The latest turn of the screw came when they informed the United States that they have produced enough fissile material to make half a dozen nuclear bombs.

The Bush administration expressed some doubt about the claim, but producing fissile material from spent reactor fuel rods is well within their capabilities, and no one is stopping them. Former Defense Secretary William Perry, who was in office when the United States came close to going to war against North Korea in 1994, said this week that “we are losing control” of the situation, which poses grave dangers. “The nuclear program now under way in North Korea poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities,” he told The Washington Post.

Kim Jong Il, after all, has no sentimental attachment to Chicago or New York. He does, however, have a big monetary incentive to not only manufacture nuclear weapons but peddle them on the black market, as he has done with missiles and other arms. So if he proceeds to assemble a stockpile of weapons and weapons material, we may not be able to deter him from selling them to any willing buyer. Once out of North Korea, they could easily end up in the hands of terrorists intent on killing Americans on a mass scale.

The administration’s stubbornness is hard to fathom. Unlike Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il is not easily disposed of. With a huge army and thousands of artillery launchers in range of Seoul, North Korea could inflict vast damage on its southern neighbor and our soldiers stationed there.

Add to that an atomic arsenal that could be used against South Korea or Japan, and the military option looks extremely unappealing. Nor is a pre-emptive airstrike plausible. We can’t easily destroy the nuclear weapons and bomb material because we don’t know where they are.

We would have to mount a full-fledged invasion, which would be especially hard given the other military tasks we have right now. The Iraq invasion was supposed to induce the North Koreans to cooperate. Instead, it seems to have had the opposite effect.

There are only two choices for addressing the threat: war or negotiation. President Bush, however, has chosen to go with neither. At the same time, he has declared that a nuclear North Korea “will not be tolerated.”

How he intends to enforce that pledge is not clear. Isolating and punishing North Korea has never been much help before. The administration has raised the idea of an economic embargo and naval blockade, interdicting everything coming out of the country. But Leon Sigal, author of “Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy With North Korea,” says making that work “requires all the neighbors to play, and none of them seems to want to.”

The president’s position is that he will not reward the North Koreans for breaking their promises. “We’ve made clear that we’re not going to pay for elimination of nuclear weapons programs that never should have begun in the first place,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has said.

But if the North Koreans did not keep their end of the bargain, the United States did not meet its obligations, either. So we may be able to get concessions by agreeing to do things we were supposed to have done years ago.

They have given numerous indications that they would forfeit their nukes in exchange for a promise that the United States will not attack them and will normalize relations. This time, of course, the deal would require airtight measures to prevent cheating. If we could get that sort of deal, it would be worth the indignity of bargaining with proven liars.

We should only hope that the North Koreans are willing to be bribed into giving up their nukes. The greater danger is that they are not — that they are determined to be a nuclear power no matter what the cost. The Bush administration should be exploring every chance of negotiating a settlement that will banish the danger.

That is what you would do if someone were holding a gun to your child’s head. Well, someone is.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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