Jewish World Review April 29, 2003 / 28 Nisan, 5763

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Nuclear nightmare | The crisis on the Korean peninsula is escalating at a frightening speed, even as talks to defuse the crisis have begun, if fitfully. And the threat of the tyrannical Kim Jong Il in North Korea and his nuclear weapons arsenal could have a devastating effect on the geopolitics and economics of that region and, perhaps, the world.

An explosive combination of factors is now in play in Pyongyang, including a cruel despot, an economy in ruins, and a nuclear weapons program that North Korean officials have threatened to accelerate. North Korea's per capita gross domestic product was an estimated $1,000 last year.

That's compared with $19,000 in South Korea, which has twice the population of North Korea. As many as 2 million North Koreans are thought to have died from starvation since the mid-'90s. And 42 percent of children in North Korea are chronically malnourished.

But while the North Korean economy implodes, its government continues to pour resources into its military. "North Korea has the fifth-largest standing army in the world with 1.1 million men in arms," says Chung Min Lee, professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. "It has over 700 ballistic missiles that target everything in South Korea and parts of Japan." And we now know that those missiles could reach the West Coast of the United States. Lee adds that North Korea also has a very large stockpile of biological and chemical weapons. North Korea has admitted to having at least one nuclear bomb, senior Bush administration sources have told CNN, and could soon be adding to its nuclear arsenal. Recently, it restarted a plutonium-based nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which can be used to create the fuel for nuclear bombs. And in the past two weeks, North Korea has acknowledged it is moving forward with plans to reprocess that fuel. Robert Gallucci, former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, says "whether it's in six months or in 12 months," North Korea will have enough material for five or six weapons.

Pressure politics. Compounding the problem, North Korea has already passed significant ballistic missile technology on to Iran, Pakistan, and Syria--a terrifying precedent for a country with nuclear weapons, an economy on the brink, and a starving population. That level of risk is understandably unacceptable to the United States and, we would hope, the world. Last week, the United States, North Korea, and China met in Beijing for initial talks to resolve the issues. The discussions follow months of wrangling between Washington and Pyongyang over whether the talks should be one on one or multilateral. But even with a preliminary dialogue underway, the options to bring North Korea back under control are complex and limited. "We can negotiate. We can pressure them. Or we can move to try to make them collapse," says Eric Heginbotham of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"The leverage, obviously, has to be both negative and positive," says former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. "The negative leverage is the threat, for example, of a regional boycott . . . of eventually even a regional embargo on North Korea and, as a last resort, even military action. But to achieve that you have to have a great deal of political consensus, and that's very difficult to manufacture." He adds that the positive inducements are some form of economic assistance but cautions "that may not be enough at this stage to get the North Koreans to roll back what they're already doing. They may be willing to slow down or to stop, but to have them really dismantle what they have been doing is going to take a lot of pressure."

The United States has already cut back our foreign aid, as have Japan and the European Union, according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. "The other two actors who have to be encouraged are South Korea and China . . . and there's much less political support for aid to North Korea than there was a year ago in South Korea--and that leaves China as the question mark." And what a big question mark it is. China is North Korea's No. 1 trading partner, and Eberstadt estimates that China provides as much as $470 million in aid to North Korea. If international pressures do not succeed in forcing a change in regime or policies and conduct, says Eberstadt, then "at the end of the road, there are unpleasant military options that would have to be discussed."

Concerns about conflict in the region are already pressuring regional economies. Debt-rating agency Moody's has downgraded South Korea to "negative"--a move that Heginbotham says "got South Korea to start re-examining their North Korea policy much more than the nuclear crisis itself." Brzezinski says that in the past, North Korea couldn't use nuclear weapons offensively because it would have nothing left. "But once they have several," he warns, "then they are in a much better position to exercise choice, even to exert blackmail."

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Lou Dobbs is the anchor and managing editor of CNN's "Lou Dobbs Moneyline." Comment by clicking here.

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