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North Korea's latest horror show

Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 8:52 PM

NORTH KOREA'S artillery attack against a South Korean island Tuesday was the latest and arguably most reckless in a series of provocations by its Stalinist regime. In March, the North torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors; this month it invited a group of U.S. experts to see a newly constructed plant for uranium enrichment that could provide the material for more nuclear weapons.

Now comes the shelling of an area populated by civilians as well as South Korean troops, two of whom were killed. This blatantly criminal act will have the probably intended effect of forcing the Obama administration to pay attention to a regime it has mostly ignored. But it should not lead to the economic and political bribes dictator Kim Jong Il has extracted in the past.

It's hard to know what is motivating Pyongyang's behavior; experts offer varying explanations even while conceding they don't know much. Some say Mr. Kim is creating an atmosphere of crisis to help smooth a transition of power to his son. Others contend the regime is hoping to force the lifting of U.S. sanctions and the resumption of international aid, which has dwindled since Mr. Kim failed to fulfill a nuclear disarmament agreement.

Whatever the case, the Obama admistration is right to stick to its policy of "not rewarding North Korea for bad behavior," as State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley put it on Monday. Both the Bush and Clinton administrations offered the North political and economic concessions in exchange for promises of disarmament. In each case, Mr. Kim pocketed the benefits but refused either to fully disclose or to irreversibly dismantle his nuclear weapons and missiles.

Rather than rush envoys to Pyongyang, the administration should seek censure and, if possible, further sanctions against North Korea by the U.N. Security Council. It should make clear - as the White House began to do Tuesday - that the United States is prepared to help South Korea defend itself from attack. And it should investigate how North Korea could have acquired the sophisticated technology that the American visitors said they saw at the new uranium enrichment plant. Pakistan is known to have supplied centrifuge designs; but some experts suspect that some of the equipment may have come from China, with or without the knowledge of its government.

Predictably, China is responding to the latest incident by refusing to blame North Korea and by calling for the renewal of the failed "six party" negotiations. Beijing shouldn't be allowed to hide behind that position.

New talks cannot succeed without a decisive shift of direction by North Korea - and only China has the leverage to bring about that change. The United States and its allies should hold Beijing responsible for putting a stop to Mr. Kim's dangerous behavior.

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