Answering North Korea

Thursday, October 5, 2006

NORTH KOREA'S threat to conduct a nuclear test is first and foremost a threat to its closest neighbors, China and South Korea. Pyongyang's emergence as a nuclear power would create a grave danger for their people and would probably transform regional security in East Asia in ways that both Beijing and Seoul would find harmful. Among other consequences, Japan might choose to build its own nuclear arsenal. South Korea's policy of seeking closer relations with the North and China's complementary strategy of propping up the totalitarian dictatorship of Kim Jong Il will have produced not stability but a potentially far-reaching destabilization.

The United States would be threatened, too, because of the 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. But North Korea appears to be a long way from developing a missile that can reach the United States. Its provocative test in July, like a previous one in 1998, was a flop. A North Korean bomb test, meanwhile, is likely to empower those in the Bush administration who have been arguing for much tougher steps to isolate the North.

It follows that the South Korean and Chinese governments ought to be leading the effort to stop North Korea from going forward. They, more than the United States or the United Nations, have the means to exert pressure. Without the energy and food aid they supply, and China's willingness to close its borders to North Korean refugees, the Kim dictatorship would almost certainly collapse. Most experts believe the North is not bluffing when it says it could detonate a nuclear warhead, but whether it does will probably depend on international reaction to this week's threat.

So far the Chinese and South Korean responses look weak. A spokesman in Seoul said a test would cause a "shift" in the government's engagement policy but hastened to add that it wouldn't abandon the policy altogether. Beijing, meanwhile, seemed to resist a U.S. and Japanese effort to have the U.N. Security Council issue a strong warning to Pyongyang. It's not hard to imagine Mr. Kim reading such reactions as a virtual green light.

The North's latest provocation produced the usual claims that the United States was somehow at fault for failing to "engage" the dictatorship. Yet the Bush administration has made it clear that it will be open to a broad security dialogue if the North returns to the multiparty negotiations it has boycotted for the past year. Just last month the senior U.S. negotiator again offered to meet his North Korean counterpart to discuss how talks could resume. There was no response.

Instead of demanding that Washington answer the threats of a criminal regime with appeasement or bribery, those who want to prevent a North Korean bomb test should be insisting on action by the governments that now shirk their responsibility to stand up to that regime -- South Korea and China.

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