Leading Article: The drums of war sound in North Korea

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THE MOST dangerous place on earth is about to become a little more dangerous still. A year ago, North Korea shocked East Asia by firing a missile over Japan, reminding everyone that, despite famine and a collapsing economy, it had the ability to threaten every country in the region. Every sign now is that within the next few weeks, Pyongyang will test a much longer ballistic missile, reportedly capable of hitting Alaska, Hawaii and possibly coastal California.

The familiar drumbeat of international crises - the Balkans, the Middle East, the tension between India and Pakistan - tends to drown out Korea. Yet nowhere on earth is there such a volatile mix of ingredients. The dividing line through the Korean peninsula is comparable to the old East- West frontier through the heart of Germany, yet far less stable. In East Germany, the West was dealing with a regime which, though an ideological foe, was a known quantity ultimately controlled by a cautious and fairly predictable Soviet Union.

North Korea offers no such comfort. Technically, it is still at war with the South. It supplies missile technology to such countries as Iran and Pakistan and, despite assurances to the contrary, almost certainly harbours nuclear ambitions of its own. But obsessive secrecy renders its intentions almost unreadable. Danger lies, above all, in the country's very weakness. If North Korea, the last Communist state, is one day subsumed into the far wealthier South, reunification is unlikely to be the gentle affair it was in Germany. Its neighbours include an understandably edgy Japan, a touchy China, not to mention South Korea and the 37,000 American troops stationed on its soil. Pyongyang may have the legal right to test missiles, but small wonder that the very talk of it is causing such agitation.

In fact, the North is pursuing a tried tactic: first provoke a crisis, and then demand a reward for agreeing to defuse it. The gambit has worked before; in 1994 it was promised peaceful nuclear reactors to ensure its energy supplies, on the condition that it abandoned its military nuclear pretensions. But no one is sure it is fulfilling its end of the bargain. This time the West must be clear: economic co-operation will continue, and may even grow, if the test is cancelled. If it goes ahead, then all economic development aid should be suspended.