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Unite on the N. Korea Issue

June 23, 2003

Two months have passed since inconclusive U.S.-North Korean talks, hosted by China, Pyongyang's most important ally. No new discussions are scheduled, and each week brings continued bluster from the North. Every U.S. move to draw other nations into dealing with North Korea's nuclear threat triggers hostile rhetoric from Pyongyang. No matter what the North demands, however, the U.S. can't deal with its threats on a one-to-one basis.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met with Asian diplomats last week in Cambodia and said North Korea was now the top priority for Washington in trying to stop the spread of the deadliest weapons.

The U.S. is trying to bring peace to Iraq, develop a working government in Afghanistan and persuade Iran not to use its nuclear power plants to make atomic weapons. Jumping from hot spot to hot spot fragments the government's attention, no matter what State Department and other administration officials say about being able to handle multiple crises. Powell himself rightly stressed the need for unity in facing Pyongyang.

China and South Korea have special reason to be helpful in dealing with North Korea. Both Beijing and Seoul fear the resulting flood of refugees if the desperately poor North collapses. It could make the burdens imposed on West Germany by the East pale by comparison.

This month, the North said it was developing atomic weapons to reduce the size and cost of its conventional military and spend more on its desperately poor citizens; that defies belief, considering the regime watched millions of its people die of starvation or the effects of famine in the 1990s while it kept soldiers and top leaders well fed. It is hard to gauge the depth of misery in the North now because restrictions on the travel of foreigners and aid workers limit information.

In 1994, the Clinton administration joined with Japan and South Korea to promise North Korea energy supplies, including a nuclear power plant of a type unlikely to be used in weapons development. In return, Pyongyang promised to give up its atomic weapons program. The deal seemed to be creakily working until October, when the North admitted having a second weapons program and the Bush administration stopped shipments of fuel oil to Pyongyang and construction on the long-delayed nuclear plant. Since then North Korea has expelled United Nations weapons inspectors and withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

There is reason to doubt that anything will dissuade the North from adding to the one or two nuclear weapons it is believed to already possess. Still, Washington should keep trying to get the North to specify exactly what it wants in exchange for abandoning its weapons program. The North's neighbors, especially China, should apply more overt pressure than they have so far.

If diplomacy fails, the next step will be assembling an international coalition. Its task, through sanctions or perhaps interception of air and sea traffic, would be to stop the North from selling nuclear weapons to anyone with the needed cash.

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