Leading Article: Failing regime: handle with care

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton's decision to send Patriot missiles to South Korea signals his frustration with North Korea's evasive defence of its nuclear secrets. The missiles will neither protect South Korea from nuclear attack nor put any discernible pressure on North Korea. It is a gesture of desperation.

But President Clinton has few options. For about a year the North Korean regime has prevented the International Atomic Energy Agency from carrying out checks required by the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty. The agency has been denied information on plutonium production, been prevented from visiting key sites, and had its seals broken on equipment at the Yongbyon reprocessing plant. When challenged, the regime has prevaricated and threatened to withdraw from the treaty.

Military action would not be effective because precise information is lacking and many of the key facilities are deep underground. Sanctions would have little effect on a militarised government with an economy that is already at subsistence level. Regional pressures are difficult to mobilise because President Clinton has alienated China and Japan over other issues. Moreover, China is in principle against all sanctions and South Korea is terrified of the unpredictable consequences of collapse in the north. It is aware of Germany's problems and fears floods of refugees and the huge costs of reunification.

Nobody can be sure what is going on in the North Korean regime. Is it using its nuclear secrets to negotiate for economic help or is it really bent on becoming a nuclear power in a last, irrational attempt to survive? Outside experts cannot even agree on whether it has a nuclear bomb or is on the brink of making one. All that is reasonably clear is that the country is in terminal decline, its economy collapsing and its leadership moribund. Almost certainly its decision-making machinery is paralysed because no one dares to challenge the failing powers of Kim Il Sung.

This may explain the obscurity of its tactics, but it also makes it an unpromising candidate for rational negotiation. Probably the best approach is to draw on experience gained in dealing with hostage- takers. Keep talking, avoid threats or sudden movements, apply carefully graduated pressures, make concessions conditional, prepare for the worst and, above all, bring up large reserves of patience. A failing regime is always dangerous. Careful handling is necessary. But this one does not look likely to launch an unprovoked nuclear attack. The immediate lesson is that President Clinton is badly in need of regional allies.