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Published: Wednesday, 4/30/2003

N. Korea: First step is to keep talking

Now it's on to the next problem. And the unsettling truth of the matter is that the American triumph in Iraq has made the next problem - the nuclear threat posed by North Korea - even more urgent.

Pyongyang this month asserted that it actually possesses nuclear weapons, a claim that American officials cannot verify but nonetheless take seriously. Serious, too, is the conundrum that the Iraq victory and the North Korean claim create:

If the United States is willing to crush a nation that it believes is building weapons of mass destruction, like Iraq, but is unwilling to take military action against a nation that already has these weapons, like North Korea, is American policy then providing Iran, Libya, Algeria, and others with fresh incentive to undertake secret nuclear-arms programs of their own?

That's why there is so much importance, and thus so much bitter internal politics, in the administration's efforts to persuade North Korea to relinquish any nuclear weapons it already possesses.

“This is a situation much more serious than Iraq,” Ashton B. Carter, a former assistant secretary of defense who now is co-director of the Preventive Defense Project at Harvard, said in an interview. “This is nukes, and these guys probably really have something. If Colin Powell went to the United Nations and gave testimony on North Korea's weapons, no one would wonder whether he knew what he was talking about.”

Some hard-liners want to apply the Iraq technique to North Korea, taking on Kim Jong Il militarily, which would be a lot easier if Washington knew precisely where his nuclear weapons were stored. Indeed, if American authorities knew that, they might be able to mount a swift attack that would have the ancillary effect of hastening the end of the Kim regime. But the cost of miscalculation is very high; if, for example, the operation took as little as two days, North Korea would have sufficient time to launch attacks on Seoul that could cost tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of lives.

But there still remains great hope, and great potential, in a diplomatic and economic solution to this problem. North Korea portrays itself as a deeply ideological nation, but this crisis has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with economics.

North Korea's surface ideology is communism, but its animating ideology is far simpler: survival.

The survival that the nation craves comes on two levels. The first is the survival of Pyongyang's ruling elite, which is obsessed with the specter that it could meet the fate of the Eastern European commissars who were jailed, hanged, or shot when the Soviet empire collapsed. No one doubts that North Korea will someday fall. The question is how long it will take.

The second level is the survival of millions of people who have been wracked by despair and hunger. Some specialists who have visited North Korea believe it provides the only modern example of an entire nation that is clinically depressed. There is incontrovertible evidence that the country has suffered from severe famine. During the height of the food crisis, in 1997, UNICEF estimated that about two out of every five children under the age of 5 suffered from malnutrition. At one point North Korea practiced nutritional triage; it stopped shipping food to the far north, allowing hundreds of thousands to starve there in a desperate effort to save lives in the rest of the country.

In this context, North Korea's nuclear weapons can be seen for what they are - a business enterprise for export. Indeed, the country produces nothing of value besides weapons - a measure, simultaneously, of the nation's weakness and of the danger it poses. Terrifying fact: The ballistic missiles that Pakistan and Iran possess today were sold to them by North Korea.

All this is why it is essential to keep talking with North Korea, a nation that may luxuriate in its own isolation but that suffers from political isolation. It is encircled by hostile powers; with China alienated and the Soviet Union gone, its only allies are Vietnam, Mongolia, and Cuba, not exactly a bloc to boast about.

“We need to get in there with a financial package,” says Rose Gottemoeller, who was one of the architects of the program that resulted in Ukraine relinquishing its nuclear weapons that were left over from the Soviet era. In foreign affairs as in personal affairs, money is a great motivator.

Important overlooked truth: Despite its mindless Marxist rhetoric, Pyongyang has no real dispute with the United States. And the elements of a solution are at hand. The United States has lots of money. North Korea wants some of it. North Korea has nuclear facilities. The U.S. wants these facilities destroyed. Not too hard to guess how this problem is resolved - if everyone plays straight.

As the focus shifts from Iraq to North Korea, so, too, does the policy struggle between Secretary of State Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. The two camps clashed this month over whom to send to negotiate with North Korea. Early advantage: Mr. Powell, whose choice, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly, was involved in last week's abortive talks in Beijing.

But the first step is talk. “We've got to keep talking with them,” Stephen W. Bosworth, a former ambassador to South Korea who has visited North Korea twice, said in a conversation earlier this week. “We can't ignore them. We tried that, and they have some very nasty ways of getting our attention. They're playing their card - the only card they have.”

Now they've played it. You can almost hear them whisper to Washington: Your move.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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