Questions – and answers – about the threat from North Korea

Kim Jong Il is eccentric, wily, and hard to read, but he is not suicidal.

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North Korea's apparent underground explosion of a nuclear device has sent ripples of concern around the world, and the United Nations Security Council into crisis session.

Now for some cool stocktaking.

Are we on the brink of war?

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Absolutely not. The United States has emphatically denied any intent of mili- tary action against the communist Pyongyang regime. Even if it wanted to act, there are no successful military options.

So what will the Security Council's weekend sanctions achieve?

The sanctions would freeze some North Korean assets, ban some travel, and seek to ban imports or exports of material used for nuclear weapons. They will make life more difficult for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, but probably will not by themselves halt his nuclear weapons development program. Though the Security Council decision was unanimous, much depends on whether Russia, and particularly China, give anything but lip service to the sanctions.

If he is somehow able to continue his nuclear program, how dangerous is he?

Mr. Kim is eccentric, wily, and hard to read, but he is not suicidal. He may be able to put a nuclear device on one of his rockets, but he knows that if he shoots it at the US or its allies the certain retaliation would obliterate much of his nation.

Well then, why should the US be concerned?

For two reasons. First, he could sell to a terrorist group a suitcase nuclear bomb that could be used against a major American city. In the past, he has provided weaponry to such groups for mercenary, not ideological reasons. Second, an unpredictable North Korea could trigger a rush by neighbors such as Japan, South Korea, and perhaps Taiwan to build nuclear arsenals.

What does Kim really want?

Probably to make his isolated country with its wretched economy respected, or at least feared. One persistent demand is for face-to-face negotiations with the American president.

So why won't President Bush meet with him?

There are plenty of channels for North Korea and the US to negotiate, besides a summit meeting. Moreover, Mr. Bush, in his second presidential term, has edged away from unilateralism in favor of multilateralism. He is particularly anxious for China, which has considerable sway with North Korea, to take a lead position in the six-nation negotiations that have been going on with North Korea.

What about Democratic charges that Bush has muffed negotiations with the North Koreans?

Presidents Carter and Clinton sought deals with Pyongyang but found Kim to be untrustworthy. Domestic "Who-lost-North-Korea"-type politicking should have no place in foreign-policy negotiations with a slippery leader like him.

Well, if Kim has stiffed one American administration after another, what are the prospects for cutting a deal now?

His country's economy is in terrible shape, and many of his people have starved to death. Now that he has apparently proved he can produce a nuclear weapon, he conceivably may be tempted to trade his nuclear program for a hefty bundle of economic incentives. A slim hope? Yes, but sanctions as a stick, and economic goodies for carrots are probably still worth trying.

What's the most worrying aspect of all this?

The effect it may have on Iran, which is also probably pressing ahead with a program of nuclear weaponry. If Iran thinks North Korea can get away with it in the face of international disapproval, it will probably try the same course. A nuclear-armed Iran would surely persuade countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, nervous of Iran's aggressiveness, to contemplate arming themselves with nuclear weapons, thus turning the Middle East into a region of instability.

Iran is wedded to terrorist groups by ideological convictions, not mercenary motivations as with North Korea. Passage of a nuclear weapon from Iran to Al Qaeda, Hizbullah or Hamas, for instance, is a sobering prospect.

Why should we criticize North Korea or Iran when other countries have nukes?

Countries known, legally or illegally, to hold nukes are the US, Russia, China, France, Britain, Israel, India, and Pakistan. With the exception of Pakistan, should a coup place a hostile regime in control of its nuclear weapons, none of these nations are considered likely to use their nuclear weapons offensively. By contrast, North Korea and Iran are unpredictable and threatening.

That is why the UN Security Council's censure of North Korea is a significant moral milestone from an organization sometimes ponderously slow to discipline the UN's miscreant members.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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