U.N. must tell N. Korea
that its escalating rhetoric
won’t be tolerated

By Ralph A. Cossa

The big debate raging in Washington these days is over which country poses the greatest threat: North Korea or Iraq? The answer is simple: North Korea.

North Korea poses the greatest potential and actual threat today. It possesses chemical and biological weapons and a worst-case analysis credits Pyongyang with as many as two nuclear devices as well. Even without these weapons of mass destruction, North Korea still poses the greatest threat, given its ability to inflict great damage on Seoul -- the South Korean capital is within range of thousands of North Korean conventional missiles, rockets and long-range artillery pieces.

But this does not mean Washington should stop putting pressure on Iraq and start waving a reinforced big stick in North Korea's direction. Nor should the lack of saber-rattling by Washington lead one to the conclusion that the North Korean "crisis" is being ignored.

Constant accusations to the contrary, Washington appears to be actively pursuing a diplomatic approach toward both Iraq and North Korea. George (Mr. Unilateralism) Bush is looking for the United Nations Security Council to take an active role in both instances, while many of its members seem to be hoping that Washington will revert to form and do things unilaterally so they won't have to make politically uncomfortable decisions.

Few would argue with President Bush's assertion that the use of force in Iraq is the least desirable option. But it is hard to imagine that, absent the threat of American force, intrusive inspections would be going on today in Iraq. What the French (among others) can't seem to understand is that the best way to avoid the use of force is to demonstrate a willingness to use it. Saddam specializes in brinkmanship. Until he believes he is at the brink, he is unlikely to fully cooperate. The more he withholds full cooperation, the more likely war becomes.

Unless you believe that the use of force is a far greater evil than allowing Saddam to develop weapons of mass destruction (not to mention flaunting numerous U.N. resolutions), the time has come to announce, convincingly, that the brink has been reached. If the United States goes to war without the U.N., the first sure casualty will be the multilateral process that many Security Council members profess to endorse -- except, of course, when they are called upon to actually do something. While Bush's watch may be running a bit faster than many of us are comfortable with, it is clear that time is running out. Waiting until Iraq can pose as great a threat to its neighbors as North Korea already does only makes matters worse.

Meanwhile, North Korea also has thrown down a gauntlet to the Security Council. After being branded in material breach of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, it is now threatening to withdraw from the 1953 Armistice that ended the Korean War -- a conflict that pitted North Korea and Chinese "volunteers" against the United Nations, in whose name the Armistice is maintained.

Threatening the use of force against North Korea does not yet seem appropriate, although Washington is wise to keep all options on the table. But if shouting back at North Korea achieves little, neither does sitting quietly as Pyongyang threatens World War III if the Security Council does its job. One reason North Korean rhetoric keeps escalating is because the international community has failed to take Pyongyang to task for the irresponsible, inflammatory remarks it has made.

What's needed is a statement from the Security Council explaining that a withdrawal from the Armistice will mean that a state of war once again exists between North Korea and the United Nations, not because of any action or desire on the U.N.'s (or Washington's) part, but because of North Korea's deliberate action. Should this occur, all U.N. member states will be instructed to stop providing aid to North Korea.

As one of his final acts before turning the leadership reins over to Roh Moo-hyun on Feb. 25, outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae-jung should announce that a North Korean withdrawal from the Armistice will leave Seoul with no option other than to temporarily suspend its Sunshine Policy of engagement and to halt all North-South contacts and commerce.

I agree with President Kim when he says war on the peninsula is unlikely, even if Pyongyang walks away from the Armistice. But Pyongyang must understand that it won't be business as usual if it walks away from the Armistice.

It's also time for China to stop acting like an uninvolved spectator. Instead of merely echoing its mantra about the need for dialogue, Beijing should openly praise Washington's willingness to enter into negotiations, while reminding Pyongyang that if it walks away from the Armistice, this time it will have to go it alone.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute.

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