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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 10, 2003

North Korea crisis: Decisive action needed

The Pentagon has started to put important assets, such as B-1 and B-52 bombers, on alert for possible deployment within range of North Korea.

It's about time.

Distracted, even obsessed by Iraq, the Bush administration is on the brink of failing in one of its most fundamental and crucial responsibilities: to keep North Korea from becoming a nuclear power.

This administration has talked tough about its intention to use pre-emptive strikes to "act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed." That's what is driving our military policy toward Iraq.

But confronted for more than a year with just such a threat in North Korea, the Bush administration has temporized.

In first rhetorically threatening the North, and then promising that he has no intention of attacking; in first refusing to negotiate with the North and then offering to, President Bush has emboldened Kim Jong Il to threaten a pre-emptive strike of his own.

Firm policy essential

The argument here is not for an immediate pre-emptive strike against North Korea. Rather, it is firmness and consistency, rather than temporizing and vacillation. And if talks toward a peaceful solution can be put back on track, certainly they should include a multilateral component.

There are excellent precedents: The Korean War itself was under United Nations auspices, and the 1994 Agreed Framework (which helped us back out of the last such crisis) was signed by North and South Korea, the United States and Japan.

That agreement (which Pyongyang says is now nullified) produced the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, which was to turn over two non-plutonium-producing nuclear power plants in North Korea later this year. KEDO is supported financially by more than two dozen countries.

So despite its insistence that it will talk to the United States, and the United States alone, North Korea has already demonstrated its willingness to become involved in a multilateral solution.

But negotiations — multilateral or bilateral — must be conducted from a position of strength. The situation in Iraq is instructive here: If diplomacy or negotiation defuses that powder keg (however unlikely that prospect is), it will be precisely because our military attention is so powerfully focused on the region.

Because the plutonium processing facility at Yongbyon can produce nuclear weapons at the rate of one a month, Bush is right to demand that it be shut down immediately. The North, however, is thumbing its nose. That is the crisis that must be resolved before the broader situation — the North's food and energy needs, for example — can successfully be addressed by the slow wheels of international diplomacy.

Same conditions in 1994

It's distressing, then, that Bush already appears deterred from responding to Kim's nuclear provocation. Defenders of Bush's policies argue that he can't take out the plant at Yongbyon because the North has Seoul in its artillery sights, because it might already have two nuclear weapons, and because of fears that bombing the plant might spread radioactive debris.

All of those conditions existed in 1994 when former President Clinton seriously considered a pre-emptive raid while he rushed troops, an aircraft carrier and bombers to the area. At that time, diplomacy, led by former President Carter, brought us back from the brink.

No one knows, of course, just what Kim intends by this latest provocation. He may well have concluded that his inclusion in the "axis of evil" means that he must act boldly to avoid being the object of the next "regime change."

He surely has calculated that what he is doing is very risky, but that he has little to lose. His timing obviously takes advantage of Bush's buildup around Iraq; he's not convinced that the United States is ready — and willing — to fight two major wars at once.

A game of chicken

Each next step in his escalation, a game of chicken if you will, is likely to follow from a failure to respond to his last one.

This process can only be stopped with a clear and credible military threat, accompanied by forceful diplomacy.

And now, it is painfully obvious, that combination of military steps accompanied by diplomatic action will have to take place on two fronts at once.

There is no other choice.

Each step of escalation in Korea raises the stakes and the growing possibility of a catastrophe. Delay only makes a horrible situation worse.