How to handle Asia's troublemaker

Nations try words - and promises of deeds - to deter N. Korea's threatened missile test.

Just don't do it.

That's the message the US, Japan, and South Korea are sending the government of North Korea, which is apparently preparing to test-launch a missile capable of reaching Alaska and Hawaii.

The problem is that North Korea has a flair for unpredictability and ignoring unsolicited advice. The bad boy of Northeast Asia, the country is run by a Stalinist regime that shuns international contact despite a crumbling economy and a famine at home.

The North Korean government seems to adore provocation. Nearly a year ago it launched a three-stage missile over the northern part of Japan, generating widespread alarm. In March North Korean surveillance ships came so close to Japan's coast they drew warning fire and last month North Korean naval and fishing vessels clashed with South Korean ships.

Alongside all this shooting, North Korea has also kept talking. But recent rounds of negotiation between North Korea and South Korea, the US, and private groups seeking to do business in the North have either collapsed or inched along without significant progress.

Now reports attributed to US intelligence agencies say North Korea is preparing to test its longest-range missile, called the Taepo Dong 2. In theory, the rocket might be able to reach targets in far-flung parts of the US. The Taepo Dong 1 tested last August can already reach all of Japan.

US officials are busy trying to discourage North Koreans from a second test. "A refusal to show restraint," Secretary of Defense William Cohen warned in Tokyo yesterday, "would have serious negative implications on our relationship, stalling or indeed stopping potential cooperation that could benefit North Korea and all of Asia."

Mr. Cohen is in Japan and South Korea this week to assemble a unified front with America's Asian allies. Japanese officials say they are intent on pressuring North Korea to call off the test.

If North Korea goes ahead, says Akitaka Saiki, a spokesman for Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, Japan's response will include "everything that is feasible. I'm not ruling out any economic sanctions."

JAPAN is one of North Korea's top three trading partners, according to South Korean government estimates, although the amount of trade is small. And Japan is a major source of hard currency for the regime, since many of the hundreds of thousands of Koreans who live in Japan routinely send money to friends and family in North Korea.

Japan also is contributing roughly $1 billion toward two new nuclear reactors for North Korea, part of a plan organized by the US in order to persuade the North to abandon its own nuclear development program. In the early 1990s, international monitors said the North's program was in part designed to produce nuclear weapons.

But given North Korea's capacity for brinkmanship and its willingness to go it alone, threats to cut any of these linkages may not be persuasive. The rhetoric will only work, concedes Ichita Yamamoto, a member of Japan's parliament involved in the North Korean issue, if "they believe that the US is very serious."

One US official privately complains that the Japanese may be trying too hard to make the US look serious. A senior Japanese politician who met with Cohen yesterday said the Defense secretary had discussed the possibility of using military force if North Korea goes ahead, according to a Japanese press report.

The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied the account, and Cohen himself told reporters that "I think it's clear we would use diplomatic and economic responses."

Nonetheless, says Mr. Yamamoto, the member of parliament, "this article itself will become a very effective deterrent to North Korea."

The US does not want to see Japan pull out of the nuclear-reactor project, since that might very well force North Korea to revive its own program. Instead, the US is offering a comprehensive package of benefits to North Korea - an invitation to come in from the cold - to persuade the country to renounce its belligerent ways in exchange for economic and diplomatic progress.

But analysts point out that such an opening is a two-edged sword for the North Korean regime. While it might improve the economy and end famine, it might also embolden the North Korean people to rise up against their repressive and inefficient government.

In Tokyo yesterday, Cohen emphasized both the carrot and the stick of the US approach. But analysts note that the stick is dangerous and the carrot may not be something that the North Koreans want.

North Korea called last year's missile a "satellite launch" and says it has a sovereign right to put rockets into space, just like any other nation. Recently the language of the official Korean Central News Agency has been as strident as ever on this issue; the agency says the Japanese and South Korean "fuss over the 'missile issue' is intended to invent a pretext for unleashing a war."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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