[OUTLOOK]Three ways to handle the North

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[OUTLOOK]Three ways to handle the North

What is the U.S. strategy to prevent North Korea from reactivating its nuclear facilities? The following three tactics could be devised on the premise of ruling out any military options.

The first would be regime change. This course entails disarming the North of its nuclear arsenal by either ousting the regime outright or inducing significant changes to its basic nature. It is a rather charming approach in that along with the nuclear issue, a host of other themes such as human rights, famine and democratic reforms can be resolved simultaneously by igniting changes to the fundamental characteristics of the reclusive state.

So the problem is whether changes can indeed be brought about. Totalitarian dictatorships have an enduring record of extending their lease on life against such tides as international isolation and economic devastation. The trick is to find measures to impede Pyeongyang's nuclear weapons development program while at the same time the country resists implosion.

The second strategy is resolution through dialogue. The North Korean position is that it is willing to once again freeze the disputed facilities if the United States assures the North of its security. In short, its contention places the ball entirely in Washington's court. But the United States maintains that discussion with Pyeongyang is futile given the country's outstanding record of backtracking on numerous prominent international agreements, including the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework by secretly developing nuclear weapons. Put simply, the American stance presses North Korea to tread the "first renunciation, then dialogue" route if the country is to secure a seat at the negotiations table with Washington. The second option would mean that the United States give up this position.

It seems highly unlikely that Washington will drop its distrust of the North Korean leadership any time soon. Moreover, it will decisively part from the Clintonian approach of creating a precedent which rewards a country that brandishes nuclear weapons in order to achieve nuclear nonproliferation.

Plan C is implementing in a limited fashion both the engagement and embargo strategies by maintaining the status quo. It would mean continuing civilian exchanges while temporarily suspending official economic contacts. Economic and diplomatic pressures would remain without forcing North Korean isolation. Yet that isolation seems unavoidable given that every leading player in international politics, including the United States, the European Union and the North's Chinese and Russian allies, has opposed and warned the North Koreans against nuclear weapons.

The third strategy entails dragging out the issue, considering that the United States is in no hurry to reach a resolution. Needless to say, extending indefinitely the limited engagement and embargo option would only further aggravate North Korea's economic and political woes. Efforts to improve the country's economic administration policies being attempted since last summer would likely run aground. Prolonging Pyeongyang's diplomatic isolation may even undermine its domestic political security. Such bleak prospects are driving the North to place maximum pressure on the United States to accept the negotiations card, even as the country threatens to reactivate its nuclear facilities. However, the more the North feels impatient, the longer the United States is willing to wait.

The Bush administration's choices boil down to the three mentioned above. The lingering question is what to do if North Korea refuses to give up its nuclear cache regardless of which cards Washington chooses to play.

The South Korean government has reiterated its commitment not to tolerate nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Still, we are led to ponder if indeed our officials clearly understand the ramifications of such announcements. What would Korea's ultimate choice be if forced to confront the North Korean nuclear threat?

The crisis is not yet here, so instead of reiterating an obscure commitment to a peaceful resolution, we need to embark on the task of finding the common denominator of the North Korean and American positions. To do so would require a strategic dialogue with our American counterparts. The lack of a common appreciation of a North Korean policy may lead to misunderstandings between the two allies.

* The writer is the president of the Institute of Social Sciences.

by Kim Kyung-won

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