Jewish World Review May 27, 2003 / 25 Iyar, 5763

Jim Hoagland

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Consumer Reports

Talk plus muscle on North Korea | The Bush administration is no slouch at dramatizing foreign threats. Ask Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. If you can find them.

But on the sharpening nuclear threat presented by North Korea's Kim Jong Il, the White House remains outwardly cool, as if it has unlimited time to nudge the regional powers in Northeast Asia into persuading the saber-rattling tyrant to relent.

Why this dichotomy of response? Liberal critics attribute it to hypocrisy, saying President Bush will wage preemptive war only against the weak. Foreign policy analysts blame a stalemate on Bush's divided national security team.

To complicate things, many conservatives begin to chafe at Bush's restraint. They urge him to withdraw the 37,000 American troops stationed in South Korea. These troops have, in the words of Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, become "nuclear hostages."

But the reality may be less complex than the rhetoric. Bush would quickly bridge the warring factions of the Defense and State departments -- as he did in Iraq and Afghanistan -- if either the hawks or the doves could present him with a workable option. They haven't. Fudge stays on the menu as the president pursues diplomacy, refuses "to take the military option off the table" and waits for something to turn up.

It is hard to argue against slow and steady in such unclear circumstances. But recent events underline the costs involved in the administration's policy of talking but not negotiating with Pyongyang while playing down the military risks of the confrontation. It may now be time to elevate both the diplomatic track and the muscle track and, most important, to synchronize them.

Does it matter if Kim's regime, which has had enough fissionable material to build one or two nuclear bombs since the George H.W. Bush administration, gets some more? Does it matter if it reprocesses enough plutonium for five more bombs by the end of 2003 and goes on to become what experts call "a serial manufacturer" of nuclear weapons year after year?

It does. Even a small treasure chest of nuclear weapons will enable North Korea to test a bomb, establish itself as a declared nuclear power and destabilize Asia's political order. The pariah regime can also sell technology and material to other countries or terrorist groups. It can openly target one bomb on Japan while continuing to threaten South Korea with the others.

North Korea's increasingly belligerent and bizarre threats have a force of their own and already influence developments in the region. They are shaking South Korea's economy and driving down foreign investment. The threats and the discussion of U.S. disengagement also stimulate quiet but serious discussion in Japan on that country's constitutional bar to developing a nuclear deterrent.

It is too late in this crisis to consider U.S. troop withdrawals, however satisfying it would be to leave anti-American protesters in South Korea to experience the dangers of answered prayers. That will have to wait for calmer times. This is the moment to reinforce U.S. military options -- while linking them explicitly to greater flexibility in meeting North Korean demands for U.S. security guarantees.

This would be a Bush version of the "coercive diplomacy" that the Clinton administration used to get the 1994 framework agreement, which did buy an eight-year freeze on plutonium reprocessing (even as the North Koreans launched a secret uranium enrichment program in one of the starkest betrayals of an international accord in recent history).

Getting back to square one is never a glorious outcome, and it is likely to be especially disdained by this president. But squeezing Kim into a new and verifiable freeze may be the most realistic goal available.

That will require talk and muscle. Both must be aimed at convincing Kim that North Korea will face U.S. military intervention if it crosses the "red line" of reprocessing the 8,000 fuel rods at the Yongbyon reactor -- as was the case in 1994. Bill Perry, Clinton's defense secretary, had plans for a strike on Yongbyon on his desk when high-level negotiations on a freeze reached the crunch point.

Clinton never saw those plans and never had to make a decision to authorize a preemptive strike. He did approve other contingency measures, but they were framed as U.S. responses to a North Korean attack as the pressure was increased, Perry told me in a recent conversation.

Preemption should be the last rung on a clearly defined ladder of escalation that is geared to producing results through negotiations. It is not an alternative to diplomatic engagement. Either/or is not the way to resolve the looming crisis.

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05/22/03: The war isn't over
05/19/03: Europe on its own
05/14/03: Globalization's evil offspring
05/12/03: No time for mixed messages
05/05/03: The case for patience on North Korea
04/30/03: Eroding Principles
04/28/03: Wars tailor made
04/25/03: De-Baathification, root and branch
04/21/03: Victims of civic passivity
04/14/03: Three miscreants
04/11/03: Saddam's final mistake

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