NORTH AND SOUTH Korean soldiers exchanged machine-gun fire across the so-called demilitarized zone yesterday. Such incidents have been frequent in the half-century of the Korean peninsula's suspended civil war, though not recently. And these days, they're not to be taken that seriously save as another demand for attention by Pyongyang.
Last week's North Korean claim that it now has enough plutonium from reprocessed spent fuel rods to begin making nuclear weapons can be viewed in a similar, though far more serious, light. The North's biggest fear is that Washington will ignore it.
Compounding the North's nuclear threats is the inability of foreign intelligence to firmly assess their truth. Moreover, in a terrible irony, such analyses by U.S. agencies might well lack credibility because of the administration's discredited pre-war claims regarding Iraq's weapons programs.
Nevertheless, the tall order before Washington has remained the same since the North first began trying to stage this crisis last fall: Find a way to end the North's game of nuclear blackmail once and for all. The Clinton administration settled for much less than that in its 1994 nuclear deal with the North, solving little.
The shape of the endgame is clear: trading U.S. aid, diplomatic recognition and a nonaggression pact for the North verifiably getting rid of all its nuclear material and ambitions. But the road map to that remains hard to picture, with the North repeatedly raising the stakes and a deep division in Washington over how tough a line it should strike with Pyongyang.
That division was evident again this week with former Clinton Defense Secretary William J. Perry openly criticizing the Bush administration for sitting on the rapidly unfolding crisis, characterizing diplomatic efforts as inconsequential, and expressing fear the United States may be headed toward war with the North within this year.
Unfortunately, Mr. Perry is right: War is a far too likely possibility, with the North increasingly reckless and the United States preparing for the worst in deciding to move American troops south of Seoul - out of immediate range of the North's artillery. But in contrast to Mr. Perry's analysis, diplomacy, with recent considerable impetus from China, is offering some hope.
Chinese influence with the North has been the key from the start of this conflict, and Beijing finally is alarmed enough to be aggressively trying to directly mediate. A Chinese envoy is to meet with top U.S. officials today, fresh from doing the same last weekend in Pyongyang.
Advance reports indicate China has gotten the North to agree to a second, Chinese-sponsored meeting with the United States, bilateral talks Pyongyang wants under the guise of multilateral talks sought by Washington. The last such meeting didn't go well, and the administration may be asking what's new here. But if China has carved out an opening for more talks, the United States can't afford to pass it up. There is no better alternative.