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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, November 15, 2002

Bush must listen to allies on North Korea

The Bush administration has done an effective job in neutralizing the threat to its campaign to invade Iraq briefly presented by North Korea's admission that it has a secret uranium-enrichment program.

It occurred to many thoughtful Americans that if the potential for Iraqi nuclear weapons was perhaps five years away, then didn't North Korea, which already possesses nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, present the greater danger right now?

At first flustered by the North Korean revelations, the White House scrambled to produce an explanation of why Iraq needed an immediate regime change, but North Korea could wait. Within days the formula was: a) Pyongyang's perfidy was President Clinton's fault, because it was too soft in resolving a 1994 nuclear crisis; b) it's now too late to get tough with North Korea because its thousands of artillery pieces pointed at Seoul, a mere 30 miles away, would destroy the South Korean capital before North Korea could be — as it certainly ultimately would be — defeated.

This explanation got Americans refocused on attacking Iraq (the only other impediment being the new U.N. resolution). It didn't matter that the explanation was illogical — that the same artillery was pointed at Seoul eight years ago; getting tough with Pyongyang was every bit as risky then as now.

Clinton tried bribery instead of force. A 1994 agreement led to the establishment of an international consortium that has begun to build two light-water nuclear power plants in North Korea, which would supply needed electricity without producing weapons materials. And the United States agreed to supply oil for conventional power production to North Korea in the meantime.

In return, Pyongyang agreed to shut down its plutonium recovery program.

This it did. The uranium program disclosed last month is a new and different program, apparently made possible by equipment from Pakistan in exchange for North Korean aid in building its missile-delivery systems.

Washington proposes to shut down the power plant project, the oil shipments and any talks with Pyongyang until the uranium program is abandoned, with international verification.

That's the goal, of course. But South Korea and Japan, in announcements made this week, see things very differently. While calling on North Korea to abandon any sort of nuclear weapons program, they suggest that canceling the power plants and oil shipments would give Pyongyang an excuse to resume the plutonium-processing program — far more dangerous than the uranium project — that it shelved in 1995.

Of course, Tokyo and Seoul recognize that any sort of nuclear weapons program in North Korea is a brazen violation of the 1994 agreement — indeed, they are the parties most threatened by it. But they believe dialogue, not isolation, is more likely to bring real peace.

Bush should pay attention. At the very least, engagement might reduce the danger of war on the Korean peninsula at a time when he is tied down with Iraq and Afghanistan.

But if dialogue proves successful with North Korea, Bush then will have to explain why it couldn't have worked with Iraq.