Korean Crab? No Thanks, I値l Have the Crow

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If the U.S. wants to avoid being drawn into another dangerous regional conflict - this time in Korea, where it has a considerable military presence - a senior U.S. diplomat in Beijing had better have an appetite for humble pie. Tensions between North and South Korea in the rich crab waters of the Yellow Sea boiled over Tuesday as Southern navy vessels sank a Northern torpedo boat and crippled another vessel, underscoring the urgency of Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering痴 mission to placate China痴 leaders over NATO痴 bombing of their Belgrade embassy. "Washington痴 only influence over North Korea is via China," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "And we致e squandered so much of our political capital with the Chinese that Beijing isn稚 inclined to act as our surrogate in dealing with Pyongyang."

South Korean vessels have squared off against their Northern rivals for four days, as the two navies tussle over access to South Korea痴 rich fishing waters. The torpedo boat was sunk after it fired on a South Korean vessel that had rammed it. The North warned that the action had brought the two countries to the brink of war, and the South put its forces on full combat alert. None of which is good news for the U.S., which keeps 37,000 troops in the peninsula guarding South Korea. "There was always the danger that with the U.S. preoccupied in Kosovo, other conflicts such as Iraq and Korea could erupt," says Dowell. "But the real danger with North Korea is less that they値l go as far as attacking the South, but that they値l start selling missile technology to rogue groups and countries in order to raise desperately needed cash." And that痴 more good reason for Pickering to play the groveling gourmet.