You have to hand it to North Korean President Kim Jong Il, a.k.a. "Dear Leader." The man rules a nation that has been reduced to an amalgam of despotism and economic ruin. Thousands of North Koreans have died of starvation, and half the population depends on food aid from abroad.
And it's not as if Kim offsets these abysmal conditions with the revolutionary cachet of his father, Kim Il Sung, who ruled for almost half a century until his death in 1994. The younger Kim was unable to secure his grip on power until 1998. And yet, by threatening to go nuclear and ballistic, the Dear Leader is parlaying weakness into strength with a strategy of extortion that would elicit admiration from Al Capone.
By moving to shred the 1994 agreement with the United States, Japan and South Korea under which North Korea froze its nuclear program in exchange for two electricity-generating light-water nuclear reactors and fuel oil, Kim has sent Washington, Seoul and Tokyo into a tizzy.
The psychological -- let alone the operational -- effect of nuclear weapons could set off a spiral of fear and worst-case thinking that culminates in war, one that the U.S. could not avoid. And neighboring China and Russia might be drawn into the maelstrom.
A nuclear-armed North Korea would also eventually cause South Korea and even Japan to rethink their strategy of eschewing nuclear weapons and relying on U.S. protection.
The more North Korea fulminates, the more unhinged its leaders appear; the more it ups the ante by taking steps to restart its nuclear program, the more the magnitude of the danger sinks in. Which is precisely what Kim wants, because his message, in effect, is "reward me before I go berserk."
This puts the Bush administration in a bind. First, there's the matter of timing. No matter what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says about the United States' ability to deal simultaneously with crises on either extremity of Asia, Kim's brinkmanship has made going to war with Iraq an even more dicey proposition.
Second, there's the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't problem. If President Bush ignores Kim's antics, he undermines the administration's claim that it is essential to stop dangerous dictators from getting nuclear weapons -- the nub of his case for war against Iraq. He also risks the trust of the many South Koreans who still value the alliance with the U.S. But if Bush raises the pressure on Kim, he could inadvertently help those in South Korea -- a vocal and active group -- who argue that the alliance with the U.S. diminishes South Korea's security by increasing the danger of war with Pyongyang.
With a dovish incoming president in South Korea and many South Koreans lambasting the alliance with the U.S. as inequitable and outmoded, that outcome could prove to be the beginning of the end of the U.S. military presence in South Korea. And that prospect would send shock waves throughout East Asia.
So does Kim Jong Il have the U.S. hogtied? Not really. The Bush administration can take several steps that would be effective precisely because they are nondramatic:
* It should resist the temptation to hurl axis-of-evil invective at North Korea. Harsh words will only rattle the South Koreans and the Japanese and help Pyongyang depict Bush as a trigger-happy Texan.
* It should repeat what South Koreans should know to be obvious: For all the differences separating the U.S. and South Korea, the divide separating North Korea and South Korea is far greater. The U.S. should insist quietly that South Korea's new president affirm the value of the alliance and invoke the common bonds that sustain it.
* It should maintain U.S. forces in South Korea at high readiness so that North Korea sees nothing to gain and much to lose from military recklessness.
* It should make the case that North Korea can gain what it says it seeks (the completion of the two reactors promised under the 1994 pact, political contacts and the expansion of economic ties) only by lowering the temperature on the Korean peninsula.
* It should point out that the best way to start the cooling-down process is for Pyongyang to reaffirm its commitment to the 1994 agreement and to undo the steps it has taken in the last few weeks to wreck it.
Bush should state that he would welcome such steps and reciprocate with his own initiatives. But he should make sure Kim sees that the U.S. also is keeping its powder dry.