Act V for North Korea

Watch for history to repeat itself in the way President Bush deals with a nuclear-trigger-happy North Korea. So far, he's following a script similar to that of his Democratic predecessor.

The Clinton script:

Act I: North Korea admits in 1992 it's made bomb-grade plutonium.

Act II: In 1993, President Clinton strides to the DMZ's Bridge of No Return, glares at the soldiers across the border, and warns North Koreans "it would be the end of their country" if they tried to use nuclear weapons.

Act III: In 1994, the Pentagon prepares for a preemptive strike - yes, preemptive - in case North Korea begins to extract more plutonium.

Act IV: The Clinton administration talks with North Korea and strikes a deal to give it oil and two "safe" nuclear reactors in return for an end (it was naively hoped) to its nuclear weapons program.

Now, after an eight-year intermission, mass starvation in North Korea, and a US war on terrorism...

The Bush script:

Act I:A new president suspects North Korea has cheated on the 1994 deal and that it is making plutonium. After Sept. 11, he includes North Korea, together with Iraq and Iran, in an "axis of evil" and makes it a potential target for a preemptive strike.

Act II: In October, North Korea admits it's making weapons-grade nuclear material.

Act III: At first, Mr. Bush offers no talks and warns of a possible embargo of North Korea.

Act IV: He throws the problem to the UN and then, with Japan and South Korea, finally agrees on Jan. 4 to hold talks with North Korea.

Bush's fifth act, still being written, might be to give a promise that the US won't attack North Korea for an end to the nuclear program. But that could mean giving up any possible US strike in case North Korea cheats again.

Tough choice: Either Bush lets North Korea build and then sell nuclear bombs to terrorist-sponsoring countries, or he trusts it enough to live up to a new bomb-squelching deal with outside inspectors. A third choice - war - is far too difficult for Northeast Asia.

With enemies like this, the US needs friends.

Russia, with its old ties to North Korea, can do much to put this nuclear genie back into its bottle. China, afraid Japan might use this threat to go nuclear itself, may help the US but appear not to. And South Korea can throw more money at North Korea to bribe it into submission.

In the end, North Korea's regime may merely be using its nuclear threats to survive - it fears a US attack in its weakened state.

Stoking its fear shouldn't be Act V.

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