Doing Deals With N. Korea

It sounds odd in the 20th century, but the Korean conflict has been a 50-year war. Only an oft-broken truce keeps it from flaring up again full-force.

Last week, with the US lifting many economic sanctions against North Korea, the war didn't officialy end. But with Americans now allowed to do business with the Communist "hermit" nation, peace may be at hand.

We can only hope. An armed-to-the-teeth North has been fickle about peace overtures for a decade. And this latest step is just a big US carrot for a North Korean promise not to test-launch a long-range missile capable of hitting the US - it can still deploy or export the missile. A previous US carrot was given in 1994 to mothball the North's nuclear-weapons program.

Rather than play tough with wily North Korea, the Clinton administration instead offers incentives, hoping to play to reformers in the cloistered regime and to appease China. Beijing, ever since it recognized South Korea in 1992, has wanted Washington to cozy up to its Communist ally.

President Clinton may also be buying time just to avoid a confrontation with the North on his watch. Dealing with a regime that's let up to 3 million of its people die from famine in recent years is not easy. And why push the North when the South is not as eager as it once was to reunite with its poorer cousins?

Republicans may hype the potential of a North Korean missile threat or claim Clinton is caving in to extortion. Both may have some truth. But the latest deal allows time for the US to develop a missile defense shield for itself and its friends in Asia.

By temporarily muzzling the North's missiles, the US also deters Japan from developing weapons-carrying missiles. Such a step could ignite an arms race with China.

Once again, Uncle Sam must be the benign arbiter of Asia's security.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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