Leading Article: Harsher reality of 'success' in Korea

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HOW sweet it would be to believe that the mediation of Jimmy Carter had induced reason in the breast of Kim Il Sung and that the nuclear threat over Korea had passed. Mr Carter is surely the finest former president the United States possesses. His commitment to conflict resolution deserves high praise. President Clinton has been quick to detect signs of hope after Mr Carter's intercession with the Great Leader of Pyongyang. But while Kim Il Sung may be an elderly dictator, he obviously lacks nothing in brinkmanship, Saddam- like resilience and a steely determination to stay on the dangerous course he has charted.

The offers brought back by Mr Carter from North Korea sound soothing and fair. Kim Il Sung proclaims his desire for a summit meeting with his South Korean foes. He pledges to freeze the nuclear programme, whatever that means. He speaks of reducing tension in the peninsula and cutting the numbers of troops. All very agreeable, and Mr Carter felt emboldened to declare the crisis over. Unfortunately, it is not.

The civilised world is dealing here with a issue whose outlines are abstract but whose proportions are so great that it could determine the shape of global trade and politics for decades to come. It is hard for public opinion to grasp the concept of proliferation, difficult for legislators to fight campaigns on complex technical data, and unpleasant for chiefs of staff to prepare for the unthinkable. But unless Western and Asian opinion gets behind governments in an implacable resistance to the spread of nuclear weapons, a chain reaction of violence and terror could ensue.

It has fallen to the former CIA director, Robert Gates, to spell out a theory held by many of those privy to the best intelligence available in Washington. Put bluntly, Mr Gates says, it is too late to stop the North Korean bomb. He believes the only option now is to prevent Kim Il Sung acquiring more than a few crude devices and, vitally, stop the country selling nuclear and ballistic technology abroad. Iran, already a purchaser of North Korean missiles, and Libya are the first two countries that come to Mr Gates's mind.

It was once fashionable, indeed automatic, to debunk the views of CIA directors as so much warlike claptrap. But so sharp is the contrast between Mr Carter's optimism and Mr Gates's pessimism that some balanced assessment of reality is called for. The administration is wise, therefore, to react coolly to Kim Il Sung's charade, and a firm American stance should continue to command international support.