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N. Korea's Foolish Gamble

November 22, 2002

North Korea continues to dangerously shroud its nuclear intentions, in a losing bet that the rest of the world will let it do so. At one point this week it seemed to claim that it already had nuclear weapons. Then it backtracked, saying only that it is "entitled" to build them. On Thursday, it said its 1994 agreement to halt atomic weapons production had collapsed because the United States suspended fuel oil deliveries. However, the suspension came last week, well after Pyongyang first indicated the pact was dead.

It has always been difficult to decipher the intentions of this paranoid, secretive nation, ruled by father-and-son dictators for more than half a century. The bluster and brinkmanship of its foreign policy, from invading South Korea in 1950 to its kidnapping of Japanese citizens in following decades, have increased its isolation.

For the last month, the United States and its allies have tried to agree on the best response to North Korea's admission that it maintained a nuclear weapons program despite agreeing eight years ago to give it up in exchange for the U.S. promise of fuel oil shipments and the construction of two nuclear power reactors less likely to be used for weapons-uranium production.

So far, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have struck the right notes in a good-cop, bad-cop stance. North Korea is demanding a formal nonaggression pact, but such treaties are not handed out as rewards for breaking nuclear weapons pacts. Europe, Japan and South Korea have economic leverage and should hold back on extending economic credits and increasing trade with Pyongyang. Unfortunately, it is ordinary North Koreans who may suffer more hunger and cold because of their leaders' high-stakes gamble.

Washington allowed delivery of a final shipment of 47,000 tons of heavy fuel oil this month. "Suspending" new deliveries, rather than ending them, gives Pyongyang the chance to reverse course and regain the oil that provides about 30% of its energy.

By the government's own admission, nearly half of North Korea's children under 5 are chronically malnourished, a condition that jeopardizes mental and physical development. Contributions from the U.S. and other countries to the United Nations' World Food Program are all that prevent widespread famine in the nation of 23 million. Still, North Korea continues to menace South Korea and the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed there, making the demilitarized zone between the two countries one of the most heavily fortified borders on Earth.

China, Pyongyang's closest ally, should use more of its leverage to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program. Spending money on weapons instead of food and moving at a snail's pace to overhaul a disastrously mismanaged economy threaten the nation more than the phantom risk of invasion.

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