Asia File: The creeping nightmare that refuses to go away

The North Korean crisis hardly bears thinking about: that is the problem with it. A nasty regime, deaf to reason or persuasion, robotically uttering threats, is pressing on with a nuclear programme that cannot be anything but hostile in intent.

Instinctively one knows that the North Koreans cannot be a race of automatons, ready to die unquestioningly for the vainglorious Kim Il Sung (the 'Great Leader') and his ludicrous son, Kim Jong Il (the 'Dear Leader') - or can they?

Surely no nation can be so brainwashed that it cannot see the contrast between the propaganda of juche - self-reliance - and manifest economic failure? The trouble is that nobody knows.

While satellite photographs have exposed the regime's attempts to hide the true purpose of its nuclear programme, Western sources admit that they have next to no 'human intelligence' about North Korea. It is more than any North Korean's life is worth to speak frankly to a foreign visitor, and the few defectors who emerge are heavily pre-programmed by South Korean intelligence before they are allowed to tell their stories to the press.

If one cannot fathom how the other side is thinking, and every attempt to exert pressure simply brings forth a more belligerent response, the temptation is to hope the problem will simply go away. The fitful attention-span of most democracies is a handicap when it comes to dealing with implacable dictatorships, as we have just seen with President Bill Clinton's climbdown over 'most favoured nation' trading concessions to China, and Washington has been guilty of similar inattention in the past with respect to North Korea.

Every now and then the creeping nightmare has swum back into focus, right-wingers on Capitol Hill have gone into uproar and Western journalists have rushed to Seoul, expecting to find a nation preparing for war. What they discover is that the South Koreans have been ready for war for more than 40 years - they do not need to drop everything because the American public has just woken up to the threat. With nothing but a mountain of speculation as to what North Korea might be up to, no television pictures to swell Congressional mailbags and no quick solutions, the issue loses momentum until the next outcry.

Now, however, North Korea seems intent upon forcing the pace. With its decision last month to begin defuelling a nuclear reactor in the absence of international inspectors, and its announcement this week that it will quit the International Atomic Energy Agency, it has moved from prevarication to open defiance. For the moment it has everyone's undivided attention.

But the awkward fact is that the options open to Mr Clinton remain as limited and as unpalatable as before. It is difficult to isolate such a hermit nation any further, and China is unlikely to back any but the most mild sanctions in the Security Council.

The military option, apart from being unacceptable to all North Korea's neighbours, would at best kill large numbers of Koreans and at worst contaminate half the peninsula with plutonium. It has been suggested that negotiating with the North Koreans is more like dealing with hostage-takers than a normal diplomatic interchange, but the analogy breaks down at the point where one would send in the SAS.

One has to assume that the North Koreans will not in the end choose Armageddon, though if any group of people on earth is capable of such a choice, it must be Kim Il Sung and his immediate circle. But defusing the crisis will require the patience and concentration of a bomb-disposal expert, qualities for which President Clinton is not famous.