A Finite Game With N. Korea

The ancient Korean game of baduk, which is known as go in Japan and weiqui in China, has rules preventing repetitive moves that would lead to an infinite game. Surely, North Korea's Communist leaders knew they couldn't make the move of repeating their nuclear threat - as they just did for the second time in a decade - without their opponents deciding the game is up.

But these are desperate times for North Korea, with millions of its people being fed by foreign aid and its giant military looking more and more ancient. Breaking international rules on nuclear proliferation may seem less risky for that isolated nation than having its economy slide backward toward history's ash heap.

Resetting the rules with North Korea won't be easy. The United States tried to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle in 1994 with a complex agreement that gave the North some economic security in return. But after Sept. 11, the Bush administration wondered if the North might be an exporter of nuclear technology to terrorists. It then discovered North Korea was cheating on the 1994 agreement by reviving its nuclear program. The confrontation has escalated, with the North even defying the United Nations' nuclear safeguards at its plants.

So far, all this is more bluster than genuine threat. The US is smart to throw the issue to the UN where, as in that ancient Asian game, North Korea will be surrounded by players like Russia and China, both with incentives to keep the North within bounds.

If China doesn't use its own threats on the North - such as cutting off food and fuel supplies - the UN might be forced to impose economic sanctions. That's a drastic penalty on a nation already near starvation. The US and Japan must find clever ways to push China harder. One whisper of Japan using the North's threat to develop its own nuclear weapons, for instance, should be enough for Beijing to act.

Avoiding extreme actions, however, is the best way to deal with North Korea for now. Survival, not conquest, is its aim, and that's a game easily played with skillful dialogue.

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