Leading Article: The Great Leader's nuclear secret

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THERE IS a chance - just a small one - that a second Korean war could begin 10 days from now. By 31 March, North Korea, one of the world's last remaining Stalinist states, must allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit two sites 60 miles north of Pyongyang that are suspected of serving as secret factories for the manufacture of nuclear bombs.

North Korea is a dangerous partner to play poker with. It has 1.3 million soldiers staring across the narrow demilitarised zone that divides it from the capitalist south of the peninsula. The country has a proven record as a belligerent terrorist regime, having blown up half the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon in 1983. Its people are restless at the worsening food shortages that have resulted from the end of its friendship with Russia, while the power struggle over who should succeed Kim Il Sung, the country's 80-year-old 'Great Leader', is becoming increasingly bitter.

All this comes only a year after Pyongyang seemed prepared for warmer relations with its southern neighbour.

It is probably too much to hope that economic sanctions will prompt Mr Kim and his acolytes to see reason. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea has become almost an autarky: it does little trade with anyone, and much of that would continue on the quiet, irrespective of whatever sanctions were imposed and whatever the United Nations said.

A military strike on the disputed factories after the deadline expires would be only barely more promising. Given that the regime has already put North Koreans on a war footing and ordered them to black out their windows at night, bombs might provoke the war that everyone wants to avoid.

The only immediate hope is that China, Mr Kim's last remaining patron, will persuade him to back down. The Great Leader's dilemma is one that the Chinese should understand. If he refuses to reform his country's creaking command economy, he risks outright economic collapse; if he agrees, political collapse may ensue, as in the Soviet Union. Either way, however, he cannot solve his problem by invading South Korea. Peking wants nothing less than such a destabilising war; hence its mild reproof to North Korea's flouting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Yet there is little room for optimism. If anything, North Korea is a more worrying case than Iraq before the Gulf war. Kim Il Sung has fewer cards to play than Saddam Hussein ever had, and is therefore more desperate. Unfortunately, he is also even less adept as a diplomat, and a regime in which his son, Kim Jong Il, has influence is likely to do something irrational and unpredictable. In the end, there may be no alternative to a carefully aimed bomb attack on the sites.