How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

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Representatives of nine countries and the EU observe a groundbreaking ceremony for a North Korean nuclear power plant in 1997

He'd hardly been on the job two months when President Bush sent a ripple of panic through Northeast Asia by questioning existing agreements with North Korea. "There's not very much transparency," Bush said in March, 2001. "We're not certain as to whether or not they're keeping all terms of all agreements."

Two weeks ago, North Korea vindicated Bush in spades, when the country's second most-powerful official told U.S. diplomat James Kelly that Pyongyang has, indeed, been running a secret nuclear weapons program, in violation of a 1994 agreement with the U.S. According to an account of Kelly's Pyongyang talks revealed to CNN, Kang Suk-ju told the U.S. official something to the effect of, "Your president called us a member of the axis of evil ... Your troops are deployed on the Korean Peninsula ... Of course, we have a nuclear program."

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Such vindication couldn't have come at a more difficult time for the Bush Administration. Its priority right now is Iraq, and the uphill battle to convince the international community that force may be the only way to disarm Saddam Hussein. It's not only that North Korea potentially throws up a major distraction; it's also that the marked differences in the U.S. response to Pyongyang and to Baghdad over weapons of mass destruction is being seized upon by some skeptics to strengthen their case against military action in Iraq. Administration officials have responded in mute tones to the brazen declaration of nuclear ambitions by an "Axis of Evil" state — they're expressing concern and consulting with allies, but constantly stressing the need for a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the crisis. Japanese and South Korean talks with North Korea are to continue as scheduled, and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday that even as far as U.S. discussions with Pyongyang are concerned, the nuclear revelations are "not a showstopper."

It's not hard to see why the North Korea script is so different from the standoff with Iraq: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed Thursday that the U.S. believes North Korea already has two bombs built from plutonium produced before the 1994 agreement took its reactors offline. It may also have as much as 500 tons of chemical and biological agents. But even without unconventional weapons, North Korea's artillery and medium-range missiles give it the capability to flatten most of Seoul in a matter of minutes. Analysts suggest that an all-out war along the Korean frontier could cost a million lives on both sides. And those in the frontline — the South Koreans and Japanese — have stressed they have no desire for confrontation with Pyongyang.

Still, a nuclear-armed North Korea would appear to be intolerable to Bush doctrine of preemption and "counter-proliferation." The Administration is certainly countering Iraq-skeptics by saying that the North Korean equation shows precisely why action is needed to prevent Saddam acquiring nuclear weapons. The key difference between North Korea and Iraq, according to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, is that "effective international pressure may have an effect on North Korea." Pyongyang's posture — as erratic and obtuse as it may be — has been driven primarily by the need to end its international isolation. Economic stasis and mass starvation have made the archaic Stalinist regime centered on the personality cult of its "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il desperate not only for trade and investment, but even for food aid from some of its traditional enemies.

North Korea's latest nuclear threat comes at a time when the country is also opening free trade zones, owning up to kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s, promising a moratorium on missile testing and sending its athletes and cheerleaders to win the hearts of fans at the Asian games. The mixed message has many in the region suspecting that the Dear Leader is once again launching a bellicose negotiating gambit. Indeed, it's far from clear what North Korea intended by revealing its nuclear program and what offers might have accompanied the news, and U.S. diplomats are keeping mum.

Of even greater concern to the U.S. than North Korea's own arsenals has been its proliferation activities. Always desperate for cash, North Korea had turned its missile industry into a prime foreign exchange earner in the 1990s by exporting medium-range missiles to Iran, Syria and Pakistan. (U.S. intelligence believes, according to the New York Times, that Islamabad paid for its purchases by delivering nuclear-weapons technology to Pyongyang.) Even if North Korea's own strategic posture was essentially defense of the Dear Leader's realm, its export program raised the danger of the viral spread of dangerous weapons.

It was the twin dangers of a nuclear-armed North Korea and missile proliferation that prompted the 1994 deal between the Clinton administration, North Korea, South Korea and Japan. Under the terms of that pact, North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons program, shutting down its Soviet-era nuclear power plants in exchange for extensive food and energy aid and the construction, by Japan, of two light-water nuclear reactors less conducive to manufacturing nuclear weapons. That was that treaty about which Bush was so skeptical early in 2001, and the same treaty has now been openly abrogated by the North Koreans (who complain that the allies failed to keep their promises of aid, too).

By declaring the 1994 treaty void and giving Washington an irrefutable case to insist on tough verification procedures in any future agreements, the North Koreans may actually have done the Bush Administration a favor. After all, Pyongyang still desperately needs aid, trade and investment from the U.S. and its allies, and it can't afford to be isolated — hence Condoleezza Rice's confidence in the power of international pressure over North Korea. The Dear Leader needs a new agreement, first and foremost with Washington. And in light of the latest revelations, such an agreement would certainly incorporate some of the tough policing the Bush Administration has demanded all along.