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Commentary: A nuclear North Korea changes the equation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 2, 2009 - One stark fact stands out among North Korea's recent belligerent actions: firing a second nuclear test explosion, preparing to resume plutonium production, launching a series of test missiles, flouting United Nations resolutions, and disavowing the 1953 truce with South Korea.

That fact is that North Korea is now a nuclear power. Its second underground explosion succeeded, and it is probably working to miniaturize nuclear devices to mount them on missiles.

What can be done about it? A U.S. nuclear strike seems out of the question. A conventional airstrike to take out the North Korean nuclear program could well bring an invasion of the South by Pyongyang's huge army poised at the border. No one wants a replay of the terrible Korean War.

That leaves diplomacy as the alternative with United Nations sanctions as a possibly helpful goal. North Korea remains a threat, even though it justifies its growing nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against possible armed attack by the United States or Japan. North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, must know that waging nuclear warfare would bring quick extermination of his government. He is erratic, but he is not suicidal.

Still, North Korea remains a threat, if mainly because of its sale of nuclear materials and know-how to Syria and Iran and potentially to terrorist groups.

Veteran North Korea watchers are pondering how to deal with the country in its new and increasingly threatening mode. Joel S. Wit, who helped devise the Clinton administration's 1994 "agreed framework" under which Pyongyang froze its nuclear weapons program in return for food and energy aid, favors sanctions and trying to get North Korea back to the negotiating table.

Selig S. Harrison of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who returned in February from his 11th trip to North Korea, also urges diplomacy and says he has recently found North Korean officials eager to resume bilateral talks with the United States -- but with a difference. He says they now insist on having no preconditions, such as the U.S. demand that they first dismantle their nuclear program.

Mr. Harrison says to expect other tougher demands by North Korea, including completing two promised light-water reactors, international inspection of U.S. bases in South Korea as well as installations in the North, and exemption of "weaponized" plutonium from inspection.

As first steps, he advocates a clear U.S. disavowal of "regime change" and moves toward diplomatic and economic normalization. He suggests sending either Bill Richardson or Al Gore to North Korea to try to negotiate release of two captured American journalists as a possible stage setter for further diplomacy.

All this sounds difficult, but the alternative is worse.

Richard Dudman, who was a long-time member of the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau, wrote this originally for the Bangor Daily News. It is reprinted with his permission.

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