Between the Two Koreas


In dealing with a paranoid state like North Korea, the U.S. has to keep its nerve and its temper. While Washington may be willing to submit to a certain amount of extortion as the price for turning off Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, there are limits even to bribery. That Washington's limits have not been reached is reflected in its unruffled reaction to North Korea's far-from-definitive walkout last week on negotiations to implement last October's nuclear agreement. The communist nation now says it will talk at a higher level.

Under the October "framework" -- a euphemism for a pact that is not a treaty subject to Senate ratification -- North Korea is to freeze its nuclear efforts in exchange for a $4.5 billion package featuring South Korean light-water reactors with less plutonium-making potential.

To negotiate with North Korea, experience teaches that it is wise to close all loopholes and clarify all potential ambiguities. This was not done on at least one significant point in the October accord. The U.S. did not specify that the new reactors were to be South Korean models as part of a contract under which South Korea would be prime contractor and fabricator.

Consequently, North Korea is balking. Even though it knows that South Korea is bound to be the major player if the reactors are built, it does not want its fraternal foe's technical and economic superiority rubbed in its face. Hence, Pyongyang's insistence that Washington should at least pretend to play the role of top supplier -- an arrangement hated by South Koreans who are due to provide $3 billion in equipment and expertise.

Such posturing should not be permitted to kill a deal designed to prevent a nuclear conflagration on the Korean peninsula and precedents damaging to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If U.S. policy is to succeed, Washington has to position itself in such a way that it is overwhelmingly in the interest of both Koreas to proceed.

Pyongyang's failed economy needs help to support its authoritarian regime; Seoul eventually wants unification, but not so quickly that it finds a costly German-style northern collapse on its hands. In this there is a mutuality of interest that may yet enable the Clinton administration to achieve its non-proliferation objectives.

In the meantime, the administration should combine steely patience in its Korean diplomacy with more candor toward the Republican Senate to avoid the politicization of this issue.

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