WHEN THE HISTORY of North Korea's latest extortion scheme is written, it may well be that the biggest U.S. frustrations were posed by South Korea, China and Russia. These three very interested parties are key to the best resolution: a multilateral deal trading a verifiable end to the North's nuclear threat for an expanded economic lifeline. But so far the three are acting as if they can sit on the sidelines while the United States and North Korea work it out.
This plays to the North's hand, making matters worse. The North is ratcheting up its nuclear threat; it's now believed to possess untested missiles that could reach the western United States. America, in turn, has buttressed its military power in the region; it's holding back enough food aid that there have been fears of a repeat of the North's famine of the mid-1990s -- in which an estimated 2 million died. This brinkmanship could too easily devolve into a bloodbath.
The crux of the current standoff may seem as irrelevant as arguing over the shape of the negotiating table. It isn't. In seeking to strike and enforce a bargain that the North might actually honor -- unlike the last nuclear agreement with the North in 1994 -- the United States needs the leverage of a firm alignment with the rest of the region, at the table and in the deal.
As long as the North can exploit U.S. differences with South Korea, China and Russia, military conflict remains a distinct possibility. This is the opposite of the U.S. standoff with Iraq, in which the reluctance of Germany, France and Russia to side with the United States may at least be slowing the march to war.
And so far, the North is doing a great job of widening these fissures. This week, Russia abstained from voting on the International Atomic Energy Agency's decision to refer the North's nuclear noncompliance to the United Nations Security Council, the best platform for a united front against the North. Like the North, Russia wants the United States to negotiate one-on-one.
China, paralyzed by its leadership transition and aggressively turning back refugees from the North, has struck much the same pose. The North agreed to the 1994 deal after China severely cut its grain supply. This time, if China opened its northeast to escapees from North Korea, sudden collapse could follow. But China, with its own fragile order, fears that most of all.
Similarly, a new generation of South Koreans, raised in relative affluence and for whom the Korean War is history, is cowed by the likely crushing costs of sudden reunification. Family ties, the lust of South Korea's corporations for the North's slave labor and the North's desperate need for aid bring the two Koreas together. But the South's worst nightmare is if that happens quickly.
Thus the South has proved ripe for the North's thuggery, allegedly making more than $1 billion in secret payments to attain the breakthrough 2000 summit with the North, for which outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae Jung received the Nobel Peace Prize. Just as bad, a recent South Korean delegation to Washington reportedly conveyed that it would rather live with the North's nukes than sudden collapse.
Such appeasement won't work. The North's weapons may be targeting U.S. and Japanese deep pockets, but all of Asia loses if it fully joins the nuclear club. This is not just a U.S. problem. The sooner the other central players act accordingly, the greater chance this crisis will not descend into war.