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Unite to Defang N. Korea

North Korea’s expulsion of nuclear weapons inspectors and disabling of devices that ensured it would not revive a plutonium-based atomic weapons program have quickly increased the danger on the Korean peninsula.

On Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell portrayed North Korea’s actions as a threat but not a crisis.

The Bush administration says it intends to emphasize diplomacy, politics and economics over a military approach at this time, but it hasn’t defined precisely how. Yet the next logical step seems clear: Urge the nations that should be the most concerned about North Korea developing more nuclear weapons -- Russia, China, Japan and South Korea -- to take a more direct role in persuading the nation to reverse course.

Pyongyang agreed in 1994 to shut down nuclear weapons development -- it was thought to already have two nuclear weapons, although not the ability to launch them -- in exchange for financial assistance and oil to heat its economically crippled country.

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So the Bush administration is right to insist that Pyongyang not restart its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon or reprocess spent fuel rods into plutonium that could be used to increase its atomic arsenal. But other nations have an even greater stake.

The United States should organize a conference that includes North Korea, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea. North Korea would, in effect, get the talks with Washington it wants, while the United States, which views direct negotiations as appeasement, could portray the conference as a multilateral discussion among those nations that have the most influence with the Communist dictatorship.

China can play a major role in defusing the situation. It is trying to establish itself as a world power and insists it does not want nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. Hu Jintao, the newly named general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, should pressure North Korea to shut all its atomic weapons sites and admit nuclear inspectors to monitor all of them.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who has good relations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, should add his weight to that message.

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In exchange, China, South Korea, Japan and the United States can provide fuel, food and economic aid to help North Koreans avoid freezing or starving to death.

Tightening the economic screws on North Korea, as some in the Bush administration urge, could backfire. China and South Korea, the north’s main benefactors, are reluctant to cut off aid, worrying that an even greater economic catastrophe could produce floods of refugees into their countries, lead Pyongyang to generate income by selling nuclear know-how to other dangerous nations or prompt it to invade the south.

A failing state with nuclear weapons should be everyone’s nightmare. That’s why North Korea’s neighbors need to demonstrate that they understand the growing nuclear danger in North Korea and are willing to help remove it.


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