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Responding to North Korea

There may be method buried somewhere in the madness of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. But North Korea's unpredictable dictator should know that the international community, led by the United States, isn't any more likely to countenance an Asian rogue regime with weapons of mass destruction than it is one in the Mideast led by Saddam Hussein.

The impasse over North Korea's nuclear ambitions has been growing all week. In fact, it has been present since the Bush administration said in October that the North had pursued a secret weapons program and might already have one or two nuclear bombs.

Last weekend, Pyongyang made clear it was scrapping a 1994 deal that allowed the United Nations to seal nuclear facilities that U.S. officials say could yield plutonium for weapons. On Thursday, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency said North Korea already had moved 1,000 fuel rods to the Yongbyon complex in preparation for restarting the mothballed nuclear reactor. Yesterday, the North Korean regime ordered the expulsion of UN inspectors. The IAEA responded that its investigators were "staying put" for the moment.

Why now? What has prompted this rapid escalation? U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says there should be little doubt that Washington is capable, if necessary, of fighting a two-front war against both Iraq and North Korea. But what can be done to solve this crisis without resorting to Strangelovian scenarios?

Mr. Kim seems to be attempting to exploit a split between Washington and Seoul. The election 10 days ago of liberal Roh Moo-hyun as South Korea's next president presented Mr. Kim with an opportunity to make trouble.

Mr. Roh is a strong supporter of South Korea's "sunshine" policy of engaging the North through aid and trade. Washington has taken a hard line with Pyongyang since October, reimposing economic sanctions. North Korea even claims that the ban it faces on fuel oil imports, especially when its citizens may experience their coldest and hungriest winter ever, means it must restart the reactor.

(That explanation is given little credence by experts, who say the reactor has minimal power-generating capacity.)

But Mr. Kim may have overreached. South Korea's president-elect was almost as blunt as Washington yesterday, demanding that the North stop its provocative actions. If anything, the crisis may draw Washington and Seoul together.

The Bush administration, however, must do more than isolate Pyongyang if it is to succeed in its ultimate goal, which is to blunt the threat from another "axis of evil" nation. Like Mr. Hussein, Mr. Kim has a history of mistreating his people, committing hostile acts against his neighbours and breaking treaties with the international community -- particularly the 1994 pact with the Clinton administration. But, as with Iraq, hard-edged negotiations remain the best way forward. Diplomacy backed with the threat of force may yet yield results.

Russia and China have criticized Washington's response to Pyongyang's perfidy. Washington should seek their help to place pressure on North Korea. Although the Bush administration has few real checks against taking unilateral action against Iraq, North Korea is different. China, in particular, has huge influence over the autocratic regime.

Mr. Kim likely is engaging in high-stakes blackmail. He runs a country in economic ruins; his only lever is the threat he poses to international stability. Washington should work to sign a new deal with Pyongyang involving intrusive inspections of nuclear sites and constant monitoring. Economic assistance should remain the lure.

If that doesn't work, other means may need to be contemplated, as suggested by Mr. Rumsfeld's sabre-rattling. But force is a worst-case scenario. Nowhere is that more true than on the divided Korean peninsula.

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