- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

History may never repeat. But some parallels are eerie. Last week, North Korea celebrated the Fourth of July and President Bush’s 60th birthday with a fireworks display, launching a handful of missiles into the Sea of Japan. Whether inadvertently or by design, with this petulant and provocative display of antique Scud missilery, “dear leader” Kim Jong-il has created a great opportunity for successfully resolving the danger posed by his hermit kingdom. The central question is whether international cooperation can and will be sustained in making the Korean Peninsula safe, secure and free of nuclear weapons, or if the toxic mix of the belligerent behavior of an uncontrollable despot, Scud missiles, weapons of mass destruction and overly aggressive behavior on the part of the United States will shatter that support and consensus yet again.

So far, Mr. Bush and his administration have played this crisis cleverly and wisely, stressing patience and diplomacy over the threat of force. The first landmine resides in the United Nations and the Security Council. Currently, and one hopes for bargaining advantage, the United States is pushing for a tough resolution that both condemns Pyongyang and imposes sanctions. Russia and China are resistant to the latter — understandably, because sanctions will not harm Mr. Kim or take away his huge stocks of cognac and his Michael Jordan-autographed basketball given to him during Madeleine Albright’s state visit in 2000. But sanctions will cause North Korea’s already impoverished masses to suffer further. So, condemnation alone, if approved 15-0 by the council, should suffice for the time being.

In the face of Pyongyang’s rocket diplomacy, international cohesion may not rise to what it was following September 11. The very next day NATO declared for the first time in its history that “an attack against one was an attack against all,” and Le Monde’s headline in Paris proudly announced “We are all Americans!” Unfortunately, the Bush administration later squandered that support by its decision to attack Iraq. So far, and it is still early, Mr. Bush shows that he understands the need for international solidarity.

North Korea has two options. It can join the international community and finally accept the basic principles set by the six-party talks to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs, return international inspectors, gain economic assistance and even sign a peace — and possibly nonaggression — treaty. Or North Korea can choose isolation. If it is the latter, with international cooperation — particularly from the regional states, the United Nations and NATO — we have the means to contain and deter the North from threatening its neighbors indefinitely, a task far easier than restraining the massively powerful Soviet Union during the Cold War.

We may never know what motivated this display. Forty years ago, Mao Tse-tung launched the Great Proletarian Revolution in China in large measure to restore his power and relevance. An amazingly doctored photo appeared throughout the Chinese press the next year displaying the oversized head of the chairman swimming in the Yangtze River. Most Americans thought China had gone crazy. A half-decade later, Richard Nixon would visit Beijing. We will see what transpires next in North Korea.

Beyond keeping the international community solidified for the long term while determining what is driving Pyongyang, the Bush administration, like the Nixon administration, has a China card up its sleeve which it could choose to play. China can exert great leverage on North Korea if it chooses. However, it needs the incentive.

The hot button, and indeed radioactive, issue in China — from peasant to president — is Taiwan. No issue in the United States is remotely as visceral, irrational, emotional and intense. The tradeoff is straightforward.

If China can induce Pyongyang to a verifiable agreement on the six-party framework, Taiwan independence can be permanently taken off the table without sacrificing that island’s freedom.

Once North Korea accepts and begins implementing these particulars, the U.S. government will state publicly and privately that should China launch an unprovoked attack on Taiwan, we will defend the island. However, if Taiwan unilaterally declares independence without provocation, all bets are off. Since China has not expressed any urgency in making Taiwan part of the mainland, both parties can continue to work out that process without a deadline. The incentive is powerful, and in a trip I made to Beijing last year, senior Chinese officials were favorably disposed toward this proposal. Should North Korea be unwilling to accept China’s engagement, containment and deterrence will still work as an alternative.

Mr. Kim knows that however bloody a war might be, in the end, he will lose and will suffer Saddam Hussein’s fate. If the Bush administration continues down its current path of using, rather than losing, international support, North Korea will prove neither crisis nor major threat. If not, then history suggests an unhappy ending.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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