Against this background, it is easy to see why Bill Clinton spoke of North Korea in such alarming terms over the weekend. A desperate Mr Kim might wish to take his people's minds off their hardships at home - two meals a day for adults, milk for babies only when they fall ill - by starting a war abroad. In May, North Korea tested a missile capable of delivering a nuclear payload as far as Japan. For the past six months it has been defying demands by the International Atomic Energy Agency for a full inspection of a suspicious nuclear power plant.
If North Korea's economy is anything to go by, there must be doubts as to whether the regime has the necessary technical, managerial and engineering skills to construct a bomb and deliver it to its destination. It is also far from clear whether the million-strong People's Army would actually be capable of a full-scale invasion of South Korea. According to a professor at Yale, Mr Kim's logistics are so bad that military units are forced to send requests for fuel or ammunition back to HQ on paper by bicycle. The road network north of the Demilitarised Zone is so primitive that huge traffic jams might prevent the North Koreans from even crossing the border. In any case, neither China nor Russia - allies Mr Kim was able to count on from the Fifties to the Eighties - would support a North Korean war of aggression.
Yet the 11 million inhabitants of Seoul, South Korea's capital, cannot be asked to bet their lives on these assumptions. A surgical strike on the disputed site would be justified if there were firm evidence that Kim Il Sung possessed nuclear weapons. In the meantime, however, the sanctions under discussion in Washington will be of no use. North Korea does little trade with the outside world, and such trade as it does would continue under the table if Peking wished. The strategy of the civilised world must be to signal clearly to the North Koreans its position on the inspections. Without provocation, this unpleasant regime might well collapse in on itself without the loss of too many lives.Reuse content