IF President Clinton gets a moment away from NAFTA and health care, he might spend it dealing with North Korea's likelihood of developing and proliferating nuclear weapons. The case is genuinely serious; Mr. Clinton would be wise to use it to bring the foreign policy disarray in the White House under control.
North Korea shows signs of instability that threaten the Korean peninsula. It won't allow UN inspections at two nuclear facilities; it will not let monitoring cameras at two other sites be reloaded. As far as anyone knows, North Korea is still a ``pre-nuclear'' state. But for how long? Pyongyang lied about its weapons program, even after a UN inspection team found traces of plutonium in a reactor. Once the isolated and paranoid regime of Great Leader Kim Il Sung and his son, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, possesses nuclear weapons, the situation shifts: South Korea will pressure the US for guarantees that Washington has not seriously contemplated for decades. Since North Korea has rockets, Japan will likely declare a need to develop nuclear weapons. (It has the plutonium.) A pirate North Korea can sell weapons to nuclear-wannabes like Iran, Iraq, or Libya.
White House diplomacy with North Korea last spring was not quite the triumph many thought. Clinton simply got North Korea to ``suspend'' its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The problem disappeared from Page 1. But the North Koreans continued their nuclear weapons program unabated.
Now the bill has come due - just as it is clear that Clinton has been ignoring foreign affairs. A ``Roll Call'' column points out that the president hasn't attended national security briefings for months. The New York Times reports that Secretary of State Warren Christopher has asked Clinton to please spend one hour a week on foreign policy. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake has offered to resign; Deputy Secretary of State Clifton Wharton was forced to resign Nov. 8.
North Korea offers Clinton a chance to rethink America's role in the world and align its stated purposes with its use of power. What is America prepared to do about the creation of a pirate nuclear state? Patience is needed and has been witnessed; Pyongyang may be using the nuclear threat to hide internal chaos. But what is the US position if patience fails? Is Clinton ready to initiate a bold set of forays to Moscow, Beijing, and Tokyo and take the lead on North Korea? Who would conduct this mission?