LONDON — In North America and Europe the joint problems of Iraq and of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism dominate the news. Only limited attention is given to the threat posed by North Korea. This is partly because North Korea seems far away and partly because there is no simple way of dealing with the threat.

It is possible to think of a forcible change of regime in Iraq, but while a regime change in North Korea is just as necessary as in Iraq, the implications of trying to force through such a change are horrendous.

North Korea has admitted that, after having forsworn the production of weapons grade plutonium, it continued work on enriching uranium with a view toward producing nuclear weapons. Many observers think that North Korea may already have enough weapons-grade nuclear material for a few nuclear weapons. North Korea has already tested medium-range missiles and has exported missile technology.

The nuclear threat posed to Japan and South Korea as well as to U.S. forces in these two countries is a real one. Amid the dire economic situation in North Korea, the threat of nuclear reprisals may not deter the regime from using weapons of mass destruction if it sees this as necessary for its own survival. The current communist regime in North Korea may not be rational and clearly has no compunction about sacrificing the lives of North Koreans.

But the nuclear threat is not the only one. The economy of the country is in an appalling state. A significant proportion of North Korea’s population is starving and, as a result of the decision to stop oil shipments, many may die from cold this winter. The prospect of a humanitarian disaster will make it difficult for the United States, Japan and South Korea to maintain the tough position currently adopted toward the North Korean regime, which like those in Iraq and Zimbabwe, attaches more importance to its own hold on power than to the livelihood of its people.

Some observers talk of the North Korean economy imploding, but the situation in North Korea is different from that in Eastern Europe or Russia before the fall of the communist governments. The totalitarian North Korean regime is supported by soldiers who know that if they can maintain order they at least will survive and prosper — and if they do not they will be destroyed. The population, undernourished and brainwashed, is largely unable to resist. Many would dearly like to escape to South Korea or even to China if they could, but this is very difficult and the families of refugees would suffer persecution.

South Korea has tried hard to establish a dialogue with the North and to find ways of gradually opening the North Korean economy, but the openings achieved thus far have done little or nothing to improve the lot of the North Korean people. Quick reunification on the German model sounds like a good idea in principle but would be extremely damaging to the South Korean economy, and the aid necessary to make that viable is unlikely to be available.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September thought that he saw an opportunity to develop a dialogue with the North Korean regime, but his apologies for the past reaped only the “benefit” of a North Korean admission that its agents had kidnapped a number of Japanese in the past. Of these, eight were dead; the five who were still alive would be allowed to revisit their homeland.

If the North Korean regime believed that this admission would help its image in Japan, they badly miscalculated. The facts that emerged about the kidnappings justifiably enraged public opinion in Japan. Japanese are understandably asking about the 70 to 80 other missing Japanese nationals who have might well have been kidnapped by the regime.

The North Koreans promised that kidnappings would not occur in future, but have refused to allow an independent inquiry or trial of those responsible for the kidnappings. They have also refused to allow the children of the five survivors who were permitted to go to Japan to join their parents. North Korean attitudes and behavior have made it impossible for any progress to be made in talks to normalize relations.

No doubt U.S. President George W. Bush has raised the issue of North Korea with both the Chinese and Russian leadership, but neither has shown any inclination to get involved. Both know from their own experience that dealing with an obstinate Stalinist regime is extremely difficult and have yet to recognize that it is in their own long-term interest to ensure that North Korea ceases to be a threat to world peace.

What should Japan, South Korea, America and the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization do about the North Korean threat? Military intervention would be extremely dangerous. Diplomacy must continue to be tried. Every effort must be made to exert maximum pressure on the North Korean regime by the two countries closest to it — namely, China and Russia — to give up its weapons of mass destruction and open up its economy.

The U.S. and its friends and allies should continue to try, despite the obstructionist attitude and lies of the North Koreans, to keep communications channels open with the regime, but they must make it clear that aid, including oil, will be forthcoming only as the North Koreans make significant moves toward destroying all nuclear stockpiles and allowing unfettered inspections to confirm that fact. Major efforts should also be made to confront the North Korean regime at the United Nations and to expose its inhuman behavior. The regime poses a real threat to peace in Northeast Asia, and the problem should be placed on the agenda of the U.N. Security Council. This could help force the Chinese and the Russians to face up to their responsibilities for finding a way forward. It is important that we not fixate on the problems of Iraq and al-Qaeda to the extent that we forget or overlook the threat in the Far East.

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