NORTH Korea's foreign policy is at a critical turning point that could resolve the crisis over its controversial nuclear program, according to many Asia experts. Economic reform and a controlled diplomatic opening to the West reportedly are under intense discussion by the leadership in Pyongyang. The conditional agreements it made in Geneva last month to end its nuclear ambitions in return for economic and technical help as well as eventual diplomatic ties with the United States give credence to this view.
But it is unlikely that the hard-line cadre that dominates policy in this authoritarian police state is inclined to abandon a consistent, and so far successful, negotiating strategy designed to extract maximum concessions. Its objectives include: diplomatic recognition by the US; foreign investment, trade, and loans to revive the economy; the weakening of the US security commitment to South Korea; and a military capability that includes nuclear weapons - to set the tone in North-South Korean reunification talks.
Whatever the true intentions of the leadership, we should be better prepared to deal with a period of heightened uncertainty and danger on the Korean peninsula until a drastic change is clearly manifest in the foreign-policy outlook of the ruling elite. It is risky to pin our hopes on the good faith of a regime with a notorious record of domestic and international terrorism that, as of late, uses nuclear blackmail to attain its goals.
The US urgently needs to reorient its North Korean policy from a primary focus on offering ``carrots'' to a more-activist diplomatic strategy to convince northeast Asian countries that they also share responsibility for providing a firmer foundation for the next series of US-North Korea negotiations starting later this month. The stakes in this game are extremely high with profound consequences for Asia's future. If North Korea is allowed to cheat in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - in principle or de facto - other loose cannons such as Iraq and Iran will follow suit. The international effort to control the proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction is the real issue; this means not just nuclear, but also chemical and biological weapons, and future space-based systems. A chilling report last year by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service on North Korea's biological research laid out the facts starkly: ``Work is being performed in these research centers with inducers of malignant anthrax, cholera, bubonic plague, and smallpox.''
Unless there is strong international action to cause North Korea's full compliance with the treaty and the nuclear inspection requirements, we can expect the collapse of the international nonproliferation regime and a period of unpredictable threats from rogue nations, dissident military forces, and terrorists.
Also at stake is the credibility of the US commitment to Asian stability and security. How President Clinton handles these challenges will be seen as a critical test of his stature as an international leader. Many Asian analysts are convinced that if North Korea successfully evades US and United Nations efforts to curb its nuclear program, then South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan will nuclearize for their own security - and an East Asian arms race will surely follow.
Regardless of the competence of US, South Korean, and UN negotiating teams, negotiations alone are inadequate. They will only be effective when strongly reinforced with an intensive and sustained US-led strategy that brings into play the substantial political and economic clout of China and Japan. But Beijing, which professes its willingness to assume greater international responsibilities, makes the preposterous claim that it has little influence with its small neighbor, despite the fact that Chinese oil and coal sustain North Korea's economic lifeline. Nor has Japan done much about halting cash flows to North Korea, reportedly approaching $1 billion a year.
Henry Kissinger had it right when he stated, ``These countries [China and Japan] have been taking a free ride, hoping that America would assume their risks in solving their problems. ....'' If the international community is serious about turning the tide of proliferation, it must begin with firm action in the case of North Korea. Otherwise, future international efforts to control weapons of mass destruction will be largely irrelevant. Convincing these countries, and others trading with North Korea, that it is in their national and collective security interests to cooperate via quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomatic and economic pressures to ensure Pyongyang's full compliance with the NPT and the inspection requirements is difficult but doable. It calls for a brand of statesmanship and strategic savoir-faire conspicuously absent in US policy in recent years.
The proliferation of nuclear weapons is a nonpartisan issue warranting the highest caliber of leadership this country can produce. Mr. Clinton should call Gen. Colin Powell and former Secretary of State George Shultz to duty as ``special presidential envoys'' tasked to visit northeast Asian capitals to forge a coordinated strategy. The goal should be regional stability. Such a high-powered professional team of tremendous international stature, experienced in applying military muscle to foreign policy, would send a message of serious intent to Pyongyang. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.