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How to Respond to North Korea's Mystery Missile Shot

When the North Korean missile Taepo Dong 1 splashed into the Sea of Japan on Aug. 31, the waves were felt well beyond the impact areas. The reactions illustrate the serious risks in this volatile region, and present Pacific nations once more the dilemma of how to deal with a secretive, militarily powerful dictatorship.

Before Moscow and Pyongyang announced that the missile was launching a satellite, Japan, South Korea, and the United States jumped to the conclusion that it was a military test. Such a conclusion and the concern it generated were not illogical. Some dramatic gesture could be expected on or about Sept. 9, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean state. The fact that Pyongyang is developing missiles is well known - as is evidence of its efforts to develop nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Although notices to mariners were issued by North Korea of a possible launch, there was no advance public notice of the nature of the event.

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If, as now seems to be the case, the missile was launching a satellite, the assumption that it was a military vehicle may have been premature. Nevertheless, the two-stage rocket and the range suggest a further enhancement of North Korea's military potential. For Washington, this is a matter of understandable concern. The US has security obligations in both Japan and South Korea. And North Korean missile sales to countries of the Middle East could further threaten US interests in that region as well.

Whatever the nature of the launch, the issue remains: What should nations do to diminish the threat from Pyongyang? So far, the answer has been to close the door. Japan canceled food aid to Pyongyang, suspended talks on establishing diplomatic ties, and announced it would hold up further participation in the framework agreement of 1994. The latter agreement between North and South Korea, Japan, and the US was intended to forestall North Korea's development of nuclear weapons by promising (1) help in the construction of nuclear power plants, (2) 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to meet the country's immediate needs, and ultimately (3) the lifting of current sanctions.

In Washington, congressional concerns had already been aroused by earlier reports that North Korea was building a large underground facility, possibly connected with a renewal of its nuclear program. The Senate on Wednesday, Sept. 2, voted 80-11 to disallow the energy agreement with North Korea unless the president certifies that Pyongyang is not pursuing nuclear weapons capability and is not providing ballistic missiles to countries on the State Department's terrorism list. The missile launch will also add to demands for a US antimissile defense system and harden some congressional opinion against the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) now before the Senate for ratification. For the treaty to go into effect, 42 other nations, including North Korea, must sign.

The missile launch comes at a poor time for Pyongyang to challenge the international community. External food aid is helping to feed its famine-starved population. Relations with the South were improving; the Kim Dae Jung government in Seoul wants good relations with the North more than any of its predecessors. US-North Korean discussions in New York could have led to a relaxation of sanctions, to formal diplomatic relations with the US, and, possibly, additional aid.

The tragedy of the week is that a possible misreading of the test and what may have been an overreaction may have seriously undermined the framework agreement. This laboriously negotiated arrangement remains the only internationally agreed basis for a curtailment of North Korea's nuclear program. It opens the way for closer cooperation between North and South Korea and, ultimately, for reducing sanctions against the North. Fulfilling US obligations under the agreement would rob Pyongyang of an excuse for avoiding its obligations and would give Washington greater credibility with other regional countries, including China.

Many in Congress have never liked the framework agreement; they would prefer that the US have no dealings with North Korea. Yet neither they nor most Americans are in the mood for armed action in Korea. Under these circumstances, it is hard to see how scuttling the framework agreement will advance the objective of curtailing that country's continuing threat to the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the surrounding region.

* David D. Newsom, a former ambassador and undersecretary of State for political affairs, is now living in Charlottesville, Va.

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