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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, October 18, 2002

North Korea disclosure puts Bush on the spot

It's hard to think of a worse time to find out that North Korea is again pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Having convinced Congress that Iraq's transgressions justify all-out war, how does President Bush now deal — simultaneously — with a regime that could be much more dangerous?

Pyongyang apparently has one or two nuclear devices — and the means to deliver them against Japan, Alaska or even Hawai'i.

It also has almost 1 million troops within 60 miles of the Korean DMZ and thousands of artillery tubes capable of pounding the modern South Korean capital of Seoul back to the 1950s.

The rhetoric of Bush's new National Security Strategy virtually obligates the United States to pre-emptive response if diplomatic means, which have never gotten far with North Korea, fall short.

The Bush administration says North Korea's acknowledgement of a secret uranium-enrichment program nullifies the 1994 Agreed Framework, by which North Korea agreed to freeze a different weapons program, using plutonium, in exchange for Japan- and South Korea-financed light-water nuclear power plants.

Bush should be reminded that the agreement brought the world back from the brink of a war that the Pentagon estimated would have caused 1 million casualties, 100,000 of them American. Bush's people have never been enthusiastic about the agreement, but what do they suggest as a substitute?

The Washington Post quotes a high-ranking official as saying some administration leaders believe "we should go to war tomorrow."

We hope they reread the Pentagon casualty estimate, remind themselves they're still engaged in Afghanistan and a war on terrorism, they're already preparing for a major war with Iraq, and remember that, before 9/11, they thought the U.S. military was spread too thin merely by its presence in the Balkans.

Some degree of patience may be most important now. Some observers think Pyongyang somehow hopes to parlay its disclosure, like its admission of kidnappings from Japan, into more serious negotiations. That's a possibility, however slim, that will be missed if the Bush administration closes down the tentative contacts it has begun with Pyongyang.

If Washington can't somehow talk, cajole or bribe Pyongyang into ending its uranium weapons program, it's hard to see the wisdom of pursuing a full-on war with Iraq even as North Korea presents the greater credible threat.