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A Times Editorial

Meeting the challenge of North Korea

THE WORLD GOT ANOTHER GLIMPSE THIS WEEK of the threat to international security that North Korea poses to nations across the political spectrum. The task in the immediate days ahead is to keep the shelling between North and South Korea from turning worse. President Barack Obama said and did the right things, underscoring American support for South Korea and calling on China, North Korea's biggest patron, to rein in the secretive state. But the United States has few options, and it will take a concerted diplomatic effort to tamp down the crisis.

The artillery attacks on a South Korean border island were an overreaction even by North Korean standards. South Korea made a provocative move by holding military drills near North Korea's maritime border and firing test shots into disputed waters. But North Korea's shelling of a military post on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which killed two islanders and two marines and wounded 18, was a dramatic escalation of hostilities that appears aimed at demanding international attention.

With 28,000 American troops in South Korea to guard against an invasion by the North, the United States has a clear interest in easing the tensions as quickly as possible. China may have the most influence with the North, but that clout is limited, and China is in no hurry to allow the balance of power on the Korean peninsula to tilt toward Seoul and Washington. China, though, must understand that North Korea's behavior only diminishes Beijing's credibility and standing on the global stage. And North Korea's appetite for military provocation destabilizes the entire region. China should use the transition of power from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to his son, Kim Jong Un, as an opportunity to build a political base in that country beyond the military.

The crisis also underscores the need for Senate Republicans to support ratification of the new START arms control treaty with Russia. Placing further limits on strategic nuclear warheads and reinstating mutual inspection regimens would have a trickle-down effect by inducing smaller and less stable states such as North Korea to redefine what it takes to have global influence. Stronger ties with Russia also would further build international support for immediate action to forestall North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Sanctions have not worked. Neither has the routine of paying North Korea a bounty every time it backs down from a belligerent threat. The disclosure this month that North Korea could have just completed a modern centrifuge plant to enrich uranium into nuclear fuel should put the arms treaty on the Senate's front burner.

The Obama administration may not have many good options, but it needs to press forward on a broad political front. This week's crisis underscores the dangerous thinking by many conservatives who in the recent election cycle called on the United States to withdraw from the United Nations. As long as North Korea remains a threat, America must remain engaged. Its diplomatic partners have an essential role to play, and the United States should be reminding them of it.

Meeting the challenge of North Korea 11/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 24, 2010 4:15pm]
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