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HONOLULU — Ever since the North Korean fireworks display of missile launches on July 4, the world has watched the spectacle of political leaders and diplomats of America, China, Japan and South Korea scurrying for a response to Pyongyang’s leader, Kim Jong Il.

Most of the thrashing about has focused on traditional diplomacy with an occasional suggestion of economic sanctions or dark hints of military action, all of which have been shown to be ineffective or infeasible. Thus maybe the time has come for a new, possibly radical strategy, one that might be called the Triple-I strategy: ignore, isolate and implode.

A Japanese authority on North Korea, Masao Okonogi of Keio University, points to the nature of North Korea’s maneuvers. The missiles, he says, were “only Act 1 in North Korean brinkmanship.” Since Kim’s mastery of brinkmanship is widely recognized, the new posture would seek to take away that brink.

The United States would take the lead in implementing this action and could most likely count on Japan as a partner.

Under the Triple-I: All official negotiations with North Korea would cease until their diplomats could prove they were prepared to bargain in good faith. There would be no U.S. diplomatic recognition of North Korea and no contact with American diplomats in other capitals. North Korean diplomats at the United Nations would be reduced to a minimum and their movement restricted to Manhattan.

A longtime Asia hand, retired Marine Lt. Gen. W.C. “Chip” Gregson, cautions that the U.S. should keep unofficial channels open to the North Koreans. “They will never bargain in good faith,” he argues, “but we need some channels to talk to them.”

Every economic and financial sanction possible would be applied to Pyongyang. This might be more symbolic than realistic because the North Korean economy is a basket case as it is, but sanctions would support the diplomatic freeze.

Covertly, the U.S. would seek to disrupt North Korean financial transactions, much as it has done with al-Qaida terrorists. The U.S. has already imposed sanctions on a Macau bank for laundering counterfeit dollars. (News of this covert financial operation could be leaked to the press as part of the psychological warfare against Kim.)

The U.S. should openly support Tokyo’s moves to counter North Korea. In particular, Japan should be encouraged to stop financial transfers to Pyongyang from North Korean residents of Japan and to press North Korea on resolving the fate of Japanese citizens abducted in the past.

The U.S. should discourage the continuing South Korean appeasement of North Korea even though that policy is not likely to change as long as President Roh Moo Hyun is in office. Much would depend on who is elected to replace him in 2008.

Overtly, the U.S. would caution North Korea that threats to U.S. interests or forces would be met with retaliation of America’s choosing with regard to type, time and place. To reinforce this posture, U.S. aircraft carriers could operate close to North Korea, submarines could fire cruise missiles into the same waters used by North Korea for its missile tests, and bombers could fly alongside both North Korean coasts outside the 12-mile (19.5 km) limit but visible on radar.

Covertly, the U.S. would warn North Korea in forceful terms that any military threats would be met with overwhelming retaliation, and that nuclear weapons would not be ruled out. Computer-generated laydowns would show the North Koreans the potential damage to Pyongyang and their industrial areas in that event.

For now, military action has been all but out of the question because the death and damage to South Korea would be devastating even though North Korea would eventually be defeated.

The premise behind the Triple-I strategy holds that Kim will not give up nuclear weapons or missiles unless the U.S. withdraws its forces from South Korea, Japan and the Western Pacific, breaks the security treaties with South Korea and Japan, and formally pledges not to attack North Korea from the sea or air.

Proclaiming this Triple-I strategy would confront China and South Korea with two choices: support their unruly neighbor or allow the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang to implode. Either way, the cost to Beijing and Seoul for regime survival or regime change would be enormous.

As professor Okonogi says with quintessential Japanese understatement: “Should North Korea’s political system collapse, China would be greatly affected, so it would remain reluctant to drive North Korea into a corner. The same holds true of South Korea.”

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