"Surprise, surprise," says James A. Baker III in sarcastic response to the recent revelation of North Korea's nuclear weapons program [op-ed, Oct. 23]. That North Korea would violate the 1994 Framework Agreement with the United States, he argues, was a predictable result.

Well, surprise, surprise -- Baker assigns exclusive blame to the Clinton administration, which is the Republicans' favorite scapegoat. Baker makes sure to give credit where it is due -- to himself, he claims, for anticipating the agreement's failure. He criticizes the 1994 agreement because it offered North Korea positive incentives to cease its nuclear weapons program. Baker recycles the familiar Republican line that repressive regimes respond only to "force, strength and resolve." What we should have done, he argues, was implement the same kind of political and economic sanctions that we have imposed on Iraq.

But isn't Iraq the country Republicans now want to invade because sanctions are not effective? This is the logical result of Baker's argument that force -- and only force -- is effective. Is he really ready for a U.S. war with North Korea that would likely turn Seoul into precisely the "sea of fire" North Korea had threatened? Apparently the Bush administration, which is currently contorting itself to show that its new Iraq doctrine should not also apply to North Korea, is not. Baker also conveniently forgets to mention that the 1994 agreement did succeed in averting an impending war on the Korean peninsula. Would his proposed brinkmanship have had the same result?

To be sure, the Clinton administration should have insisted upon more rigorous inspections to verify that the agreement was being genuinely upheld. But Baker's characterization of all positive incentives as appeasement is simply wrong. Which is more dangerous -- a North Korea that is tempted out of its hermetic isolation and into relationships with free nations, or a North Korea that is further isolated, its economy collapsing, its people starving, its outlook desperate? The latter, Baker would undoubtedly argue, could not sustain itself. But would it self-destruct with a whimper or a bang?

-- Robert Wiygul