Take it from CIA director James Woolsey: At the top of U.S. security concerns is not Bosnia but North Korea, the Stalinist regime now threatening to break its way into the exclusive club of nuclear powers. It may seem odd that so dread a threat comes from a small, isolated, basket-case weak country, but these liabilities perversely explain at least partly why North Korea behaves as it does.
Saddled with a discredited ideology, denied the Cold War support it once got from the Soviet Union, held at arm's length even by China, Pyongyang's aging warlord, Kim Il-sung, must fear leaving a legacy not unlike East Germany's Erich Honecker.
And so to prevent this ultimate humiliation and possible absorption by bustling South Korea, he has built an outsized military machine topped, in the CIA's view, by at least one nuclear weapon -- with more on the way. He has attracted world attention, even attaining one-on-one dealings with the U.S. superpower, by defying international inspection of his nuclear facilities.
On Feb. 21, the International Atomic Energy Commission may well urge U.N. economic sanctions if North Korea does not change its ways. For the Clinton administration, chafing at criticism that it has been soft on Pyongyang, the economic cudgel may prove irresistible as an alternative to what could come: an air strike to take out North Korea's nuclear facilities even at the very real risk of a massive northern assault on South Korea.
The demilitarized zone between the two Koreas bisects the most heavily militarized zone in the world today. A North Korean army of 2.1 million troops is almost nose-to-nose against a South Korean army half that size. It is backed up by massive artillery capable of hitting Seoul and armor that could thrust southward in a replay of 1950.
There is a danger of war -- a big war -- in which the U.S. would not have the option of staying out as it has in Bosnia. The White House was justified in using carrots to lure North Korea into compliance with the high-priority objective of stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. And if it now requires economic sanctions to maintain the credibility of that objective, then Washington should use the sanctions stick. But it should be accompanied by a diplomatic initiative of creative proportions -- perhaps an Asian summit with the U.S, Russia, China, Japan and the two Koreas in attendance.
Such a summit could assure North Korea that outside powers would accept its existence as a separate nation-state for the foreseeable future. This could not be a guarantee, because North Korea's regime could implode as East Germany's did. But it might provide a respite from tension and a face-saving way for the Pyongyang regime to join a world community willing to give it a measure of respectability and recognition.