Leading article: North Korea might have made a fatal mistake

By alienating China, Pyongyang has lost its final supporter

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The Korean crisis is growing in intensity. Monday's nuclear test by Pyongyang has been followed by the suspension of a truce that ended the peninsula war more than half a century ago. Of course, it is nothing new for North Korea to present a hostile face to the world. But this crisis feels particularly dangerous because it is so hard to see what game Pyongyang is playing.

In recent years, bellicose gestures from the regime have been interpreted as efforts to extract aid from its neighbours and drag America to the negotiating table. Yet this cannot be the explanation now because a US delegation has visited the region this year. The channels of communication are already open.

It has been suggested that this crisis could be the result of an effort by Kim Jong-Il to shore up his authority at home or to engineer a smooth succession to his favoured son. Yet this explanation also fails to convince since, by conducting another nuclear test, Pyongyang has alienated China, its only ally on the international stage. This opens up another terrifying possibility: that these nuclear manoeuvres by Pyongyang represent not reasoned policy, but frenzied paranoia. The world managed to avoid nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War because the Soviet Union could be relied upon to act in a rational manner. If the same assumption cannot be used with respect to North Korea, the danger posed by this crisis rises considerably.

So what should the world's response be given these deep uncertainties? Many diplomats with experience of dealing with this 1984-style regime must be tempted to despair. The world, led by the United States, has tried everything to bring North Korea in from the cold over the past 15 years. President Clinton sought engagement, but to no avail. President Bush adopted a more hostile approach, branding North Korea part of an "axis of evil" and extending the regime's isolation. But this did nothing to subdue Pyongyang, which responded with its first nuclear test in 2006. Finally, in his inaugural address, Barack Obama offered America's enemies, including Pyongyang, a fresh start. But that hand has been slapped away this week.

What else is there to try? The international community, for want of any better ideas, is stumbling down the path of fresh sanctions and a plan to search all shipments from the North to prevent the regime smuggling nuclear material out of the country. Such activity, of course, is stoking Pyongyang's paranoia further.

Yet grim as the situation is, it is possible that a door of opportunity has opened this week. Pyongyang's alienation of China could prove a fatal mistake. If Beijing halts deliveries of oil and food to its economic basket case of a neighbour, its days would be numbered. China has been loath to take any action to destabilise North Korea in the past because of its fear that the regime's collapse would unleash a wave of starving refugees across its borders.

But Beijing might now decide that this would be the lesser of two evils. If such a shift in thinking is possible, the most astute response from the rest of the international community would be to step back and let China discreetly pull the plug on its old client.

It might seem a vain hope as the drums of confrontation grow louder in North East Asia, but what seems like a spasm of dangerous irrationality from Pyongyang could turn out to be the beginning of the death throes of this loathsome regime.

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