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No-Win Reactions to N. Korea's Actions

By Richard Halloran

The detonation of what North Korea claimed was a nuclear device last week should not have been a surprise as it has been evident for many months that the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, had no intention of giving up his nuclear ambitions.

The New York Times reported that the explosion had given the Bush Administration and much of Washington a "strategic jolt." But that was because official Washington hasn't been paying attention, consumed as it has been with Iraq, the Middle East, and the coming elections.

The critical question now is what the U.S. and its allies should do next. None of the options is promising:

* Negotiations: The North Koreans have been demanding direct talks with the U.S while the administration insists on dealing with Pyongyang through the so-called Six Party Talks in Beijing. Bilateral meetings have taken place during those talks, at the United Nations in New York, and could wherever the U.S. and North Korea both have ambassadors.

All has been futile because the North Koreans are not serious about negotiating. What they want is evident: A peace treaty ending the Korean War of 1950-53, which the U.S. is willing to sign. Beyond that, they want a non-aggression pact, diplomatic relations with the U.S., a lifting of sanctions, an abrogation of the U.S.-South Korea security treaty and all U.S. troops off the Korean peninsula.

Further, the North Koreans want an end to the U.S.-Japan security treaty and U.S. forces withdrawn from Japan, including Okinawa. Pyongyang has demanded that the Seventh Fleet be withdrawn from the Western Pacific. And they demand some sort of restrictions on U.S. nuclear forces based at sea or on the U.S. mainland.

For the U.S., most of those demands are not negotiable. And even if they were, there is no guarantee that North Korea, with its record of broken agreements, would give up nuclear weapons.

* Sanctions: The U.S. has already imposed trade and financial sanctions on North Korea; not much more could be done because Pyongyang's economy is flat on its back. The North Koreans have already dismissed the threat of United Nations sanctions as meaningless.

* Military Force: While the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are tied down in Iraq, the U.S. Navy and Air Force have ample means to punish North Korea. Cruise missiles launched from submarines or B-52 bombers, all several hundred miles offshore, could severely damage North Korea's nuclear installations.

A small-scale "shot across the bow" warning or a large salvo fired for effect should be accompanied by an unambiguous U.S. pledge that any North Korean move toward attacking South Korea would bring about the destruction of Pyongyang. That U.S. assault could be conventional or nuclear.

The danger of employing military force is that it could unleash the Law of Unintended Consequences. Kim Jong Il might become so desperate that he would order an attack on South Korea, causing untold casualties before his regime and forces could be destroyed.

* Do Nothing: The U.S. and its allies have learned to live with Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, plus Britain and France, as nuclear powers. America's adversaries have come to understand that a nuclear attack on the U.S. would lead to retaliation and their destruction; thus they have stayed their hands. The same deterrence could be applied to North Korea.

In addition, North Korea would be roundly ignored by the U.S.--no peace treaty, no non-aggression pact, no diplomatic relations, no trade or financial transactions, nothing. The authorities in Pyongyang would be given a telephone number and told to call when they are ready to talk seriously. In short, this would take away Kim Jong Il's favorite tactic, which is brinkmanship.

The ripple-out effect of the North Korean detonation will take some weeks to become clear. China has surely lost face because of the failure of the Six Party Talks that Beijing initiated. South Korea is in a quandary as Seoul's policy of appeasing North Korea has failed.

Japan, on the other hand, has acted decisively in line with its newly assertive international posture, banning North Koreans, North Korean ships, and North Korean goods from entering Japan. Moreover, it seems likely that the Japanese, not wanting to go nuclear themselves, will seek to tighten their alliance with the U.S.

A great unknown is the effect on Iran, which is seeking to be the next nation to cross the nuclear threshold. The campaign against nuclear proliferation has been weakened but how much is a question mark.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

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