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Korean Crisis Is Major Test for All 2004 Candidates

The first foreign-policy test for Democratic presidential candidates is at hand: Come up with a plan to solve the nuclear crisis with North Korea.

What strategies the various contenders recommend will tell us a lot about their ability to think through a horribly difficult strategic problem — and whether their natural bent in a crisis is toward appeasement, confrontation or some creative middle course.

[IMGCAP(1)] Korea is a test, too, for President Bush, whose re-election — and the nation’s place in the world — rides on his ability to maneuver through simultaneous challenges in Iraq, Korea, Afghanistan, the Mideast and the war on terror.

The first part of the test for Democrats is to say whether North Korea’s restarting of its nuclear weapons program actually constitutes a crisis demanding urgent action.

The Bush administration claims it does not, with Secretary of State Colin Powell cautioning CNN interviewer Wolf Blitzer not to get “breathless” about the situation and Bush saying it can be handled “peacefully through diplomacy.”

It’s widely assumed that the administration really is pursuing a “one crisis at a time” strategy and doesn’t want to let the Korean problem divert it from the forthcoming confrontation with Iraq.

Even though North Korea is believed to already possess two nuclear bombs and could produce five or six more within months — and Iraq is thought to be further behind — there is a logic to the administration’s “Iraq first” priority.

Troops already are on the way to the Persian Gulf. The United Nations Security Council has demanded that Iraq disarm. The timetable for war is set for this month or next, before the weather gets hot.

Moreover, as various Bush allies have argued, Iraq is a North Korea in the making and needs to be stopped from developing nuclear weapons before military options become difficult or impossible.

[IMGCAP(2)] Still, even if the administration doesn’t want to label Korea a “crisis,” it certainly demands immediate action — but the best course to follow is anything but clear.

Besides showing what they are made of as strategists, conceivably the Democratic candidates actually could help the country develop a wise solution to the problem.

So far, only one 2004 Democratic hopeful has commented at any length on the Korea situation — Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), who has been ahead of the pack on a range of issues including Iraq, homeland security and tax cuts.

However, Lieberman’s instant reaction — on Blitzer’s “Late Edition” on Dec. 29 — was disconcerting. Lieberman declared that North Korea’s weaponry posed a crisis, but he seemed to blame it more on Bush than on North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Il.

He said the Bush administration “dropped the ball by cutting off fuel shipments, which is the agreement that the North Koreans entered. In return for the fuel, they would stop this nuclear power plant producing plutonium. We stopped the fuel. They started up the plutonium plant.”

However, the fact is that the United States stopped fuel shipments when it was learned that North Korea was secretly working on an enriched uranium plant in violation of its 1994 agreement not to develop nuclear weapons.

On CBS’ “Face the Nation” Lieberman proposed immediate, direct U.S. negotiations with North Korea — which the administration so far refuses to engage in — “and I’d put the military option on the table as part of those negotiations.”

Lieberman’s approach seems both softer and tougher than Bush’s — both rewarding North Korean misbehavior by granting its demand for direct talks and escalating the danger by talk of war.

Lieberman needs to explain how Bush — or a President Lieberman — could fight a war in Iraq and Korea at the same time with U.S. defenses reduced during the Clinton administration from 1.8 million personnel to 1.5 million.

The only other presidential contender to comment on the situation was Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who also blamed Bush.

He charged on Dec. 27 that North Korea’s moves to restart its plutonium plant was “predictable and totally anticipated based on this administration’s complete avoidance of a responsible approach to North Korea over a year and a half.”

It’s true that the Bush administration held back from dealing with North Korea, but any Democrat who’s honest should be at least equally critical of the Clinton administration for its fecklessness.

After considering war to stop plutonium production, Clinton was diverted toward diplomacy by former President Jimmy Carter and then concluded the 1994 deal, which North Korea soon breached while the Clinton administration ignored intelligence reports on its cheating.

Democrats also need to explain how — if at all — they would handle other players in the North Korean equation — China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the U.N. Security Council.

If they favor direct talks, cutting out other nations, they will have to explain why they are abandoning the usual Democratic penchant for multilateral action, the course that Bush is now taking.

Most of all, the Democrats need to say what their endgame is — to buy off North Korea with massive aid, as Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has suggested, or to force denuclearization, as proposed by former Clinton aides Sandy Berger and Robert Gallucci.

And they have to say what they’d do if, as seems entirely possible, North Korea rejects both pressure and promises and goes ahead building nuclear bombs. The danger is that Kim Jong Il will sell them. The world terrorist network surely is buying.

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