Archive for Thursday, July 6, 2006

North Korea poses world’s greatest threat

July 6, 2006


This week's North Korean missile firings are an unpleasant reminder to the world - and to President Bush - that the reclusive Pyongyang regime and its unpredictable leader remain one of the greatest threats to global peace.

Despite the failure of the most significant attempted test, a long-range missile capable of reaching the United States, the unfortunate fact is that North Korea has been able to develop a nuclear capacity despite two different U.S. approaches to forestall it.

It was not immediately clear whether President Kim Jong Il wants to use that capacity for military or diplomatic bargaining purposes. The unsuccessful launch of the Taepodong-2 missile suggests any military threat may be more prospective than current.

But that only underscores this unsettling fact:

Despite more than a decade of efforts, neither the United States nor its principal allies in the region have found any sure way to prevent or even slow North Korea's nuclear development.

Given the geography of the region, especially North Korea's proximity to South Korea and Japan, and the lack of hard intelligence data, it's easy to see why many people view this as the world's biggest threat to peace.

The failure to cope with North Korea is especially striking in view of the fact that the Bush and Clinton administrations have pursued two very different strategies.

President Bill Clinton, after a 1994 war scare, negotiated a pact with the North Koreans that depended primarily on extending a carrot to the economically hard-pressed Pyongyang government.

North Korea renewed its commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and agreed to international inspectors, in return for two light water nuclear reactors for electricity.

The Clinton administration sought in other ways to improve relations. Before leaving office, Clinton hoped to visit North Korea and sign an agreement banning long-range missile production. But the trip never came off.

Still, there was some expectation that Bush would continue the diplomatic effort. But when Secretary of State Colin Powell said so during a Washington visit by South Korea's president, the White House yanked the rug out from under him and made clear it was considering something else.

A year later, Bush formalized his hard-line approach to North Korea by including it with Iran and Iraq as an "axis of evil" threatening world peace. Later that year, North Korea admitted it had continued its nuclear development and withdrew from the nonproliferation treaty.

While persistently refusing to hold any direct talks, Bush has joined with Japan, China, Russia and the two Koreas in six-power talks designed to persuade the North Koreans to back off their nuclear development.

Judging from what happened this week, the stick approach has gotten no further than the carrot. The situation may have been exacerbated when Bush agreed with top European allies to offer Iran incentives to forestall its nuclear development.

North Korea's apparent response: this week's launchings.

They produced denunciations and some economic moves from the United States and its allies, and a flurry of diplomatic activity. But there appears to be no clear consensus as to what effect the tests or the countermoves will have on Kim.

One fortunate aspect is that the main launch was unsuccessful.

The United States apparently was prepared to shoot down the North Korean missile, an act that could have produced unforeseen circumstances. And a successful firing might have inspired Kim to do something even more provocative and dangerous.

Anyone who has been to Korea understands why this may well be the world's most dangerous place. The heavily armed Korean border sits just 25 miles from Seoul, the thriving South Korean capital.

Besides, the West probably knows less about what's going on in North Korea than in any other potentially dangerous place in the world. No wonder it's been so difficult to develop a successful strategy to deal with a problem that has persisted, in one way or another, for more than half a century and seems nowhere close to solution.

- Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.


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