ONCE again, the world has been treated to the spectacle of an aging dictator defying the wishes of the global community. This week North Korea is holding a session of its Supreme People's Assembly, with the usual flourishes showing Kim Il Sung, the Great and Beloved Leader, receiving the adulation of millions. Pyongyang is showing continued defiance of United Nations admonitions to accept inspection of its nuclear facilities. Mr. Kim seems intent on acquiring the bomb, and his minions say they will regard any imposition of economic sanctions as an act of war.
Neither the United States nor any of North Korea's neighbors - South Korea, China, Russia, or Japan - wants Pyongyang to become a nuclear power. Yet no one knows how to stop it.
Washington's approach has been the most clear-cut. It doesn't want nuclear proliferation, period. It is trying to keep Iran from acquiring the bomb. It has brought strong pressure on Pakistan over the years not to go nuclear, although this has been difficult given that its powerful next-door neighbor, India, exploded a nuclear device years ago.
The Clinton administration inherited the policy of previous administrations on nuclear proliferation. All proliferation is dangerous, but the case of North Korea poses the greatest immediate threat: first, because the regime headed by Kim and his son Jong Il is idiosyncratic and unpredictable; second, because it seems capable of developing both a bomb and a means of delivery relatively soon - perhaps in a couple of years; and third, because of North Korea's highly sensitive geostrategic neighborhood. Russia, China, and Japan are its immediate neighbors, while the US has treaty obligations to defend both South Korea and Japan.
In the UN, Russia seems ready to go along with the US view that sanctions must be imposed if North Korea continues to refuse nuclear inspection. China's attitude is much more problematic, and as a Security Council member with veto powers, it must be persuaded to agree to sanctions if they are to have any practical effect. Almost all of North Korea's oil comes from China.
Behind China's advice to go slow on sanctions lies a dilemma: China doesn't want North Korea to acquire nuclear capability. This would give Pyongyang the power to threaten not merely South Korea or Japan, but China itself. Beijing also fears that a nuclear-armed North Korea will powerfully weaken Japan's resolve never to go nuclear, to say nothing of South Korea's.
But as the Chinese keep saying, their ability to influence a determined North Korea is limited. If push comes to shove, Beijing may decide that it is safer to keep North Korea as an ally and client state, even if nuclear-armed, than to risk engulfing the entire Korean peninsula in the flames of war.
South Korea, which under the late Park Chung Hee had nuclear-arms ambitions of its own, now forswears them and has been working to make the Korean peninsula a nuclear-free zone. But so far it has shown little stomach for the sanctions that would give teeth to the UN demand for nuclear inspections. Memories of the Korean War have not faded. The need to counter a surprise attack by North Korea, accompanied by terrorist assaults on South Korea's nuclear power stations, ranks high on the list of Seoul's military preoccupations. It cautions that sanctions should not be blundered into without analyzing the costs - particularly if, as many analysts presume, China will refuse to participate.
Japan also faces uncomfortable decisions over sanctions. If the UN ultimately votes for them, Tokyo will go along. It cannot afford to be out of step with the US on an issue of such transcendent importance to the security of the entire East Asian region.
But Tokyo, like some of Washington's other allies, sees an accumulation of indications that the Clinton White House does not have the interest in or commitment to foreign affairs that its predecessors had; that its policies, for instance toward China, have been inconsistent and contradictory; and that there simply has not been the spadework required to forge a grand coalition that can credibly confront North Korea and face it down.
There is still time to compose these differences and to forge a united front - but just barely. This is a crisis that demands the undivided attention and commitment of all.