North Korea Blinks

American military successes in Iraq and effective behind-the-scenes diplomacy by Secretary of State Colin Powell may have so far sobered up an intemperate, saber-rattling North Korea.

Rather than take a tense crisis with the US to the brink, one member of President Bush's "axis of evil" has, for now, blinked.

North Korea has yet to make good on threats to test a missile that could reach Alaska or to restart production of bomb-grade nuclear material. And its key demand - direct talks with the US in hopes of winning a nonaggression pact - seems a very distant possibility.

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Instead, the United Nations Security Council plans to meet next week to discuss possible actions against North Korea for violating international rules in its nuclear program.

All this helps reinforce President Bush's decision to treat North Korea differently from Iraq. And while some Bush critics said Kim Jong Il is more dangerous than Saddam Hussein, the US has wisely used its ties with China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea to form a diplomatic front.

Mr. Powell had predicted China would prefer to play its role "quietly." Indeed, last month, China shut down an oil pipeline to North Korea for a few days, a signal Pyongyang could hardly ignore. (Over half the North's oil comes from China.)

Then Japan launched two spy satellites last week that will keep an eye on North Korea. A promised response by the North to test a long-range missile over Japan hasn't happened, and Japanese officials predict it won't.

The US, meanwhile, has moved bombers closer to North Korea. And by hinting it may withdraw troops from South Korea, the US all but ended an anti-US tone in Seoul that only helps Pyongyang.

Letting North Korea become a nuclear power is in no country's interest. China fears it would push Japan and Taiwan to go nuclear. And the same is true in letting the North develop long-range missiles: Japan is now eager to set up a missile-defense shield (even more so after seeing the improved Patriots working well in Kuwait). That may upset Asia's power balance.

South Korea, meanwhile, may offer an incentive to the North by arranging for a gas pipeline from Russia.

Multilateral talks with North Korea, which can provide cover for bilateral talks with the US, are the best course to avoid a conflict.

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