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Questions – and answers – about the threat from North Korea

Kim Jong Il is eccentric, wily, and hard to read, but he is not suicidal.

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North Korea's apparent underground explosion of a nuclear device has sent ripples of concern around the world, and the United Nations Security Council into crisis session.

Now for some cool stocktaking.

Are we on the brink of war?

Absolutely not. The United States has emphatically denied any intent of mili- tary action against the communist Pyongyang regime. Even if it wanted to act, there are no successful military options.

So what will the Security Council's weekend sanctions achieve?

The sanctions would freeze some North Korean assets, ban some travel, and seek to ban imports or exports of material used for nuclear weapons. They will make life more difficult for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, but probably will not by themselves halt his nuclear weapons development program. Though the Security Council decision was unanimous, much depends on whether Russia, and particularly China, give anything but lip service to the sanctions.

If he is somehow able to continue his nuclear program, how dangerous is he?

Mr. Kim is eccentric, wily, and hard to read, but he is not suicidal. He may be able to put a nuclear device on one of his rockets, but he knows that if he shoots it at the US or its allies the certain retaliation would obliterate much of his nation.

Well then, why should the US be concerned?

For two reasons. First, he could sell to a terrorist group a suitcase nuclear bomb that could be used against a major American city. In the past, he has provided weaponry to such groups for mercenary, not ideological reasons. Second, an unpredictable North Korea could trigger a rush by neighbors such as Japan, South Korea, and perhaps Taiwan to build nuclear arsenals.

What does Kim really want?

Probably to make his isolated country with its wretched economy respected, or at least feared. One persistent demand is for face-to-face negotiations with the American president.

So why won't President Bush meet with him?

There are plenty of channels for North Korea and the US to negotiate, besides a summit meeting. Moreover, Mr. Bush, in his second presidential term, has edged away from unilateralism in favor of multilateralism. He is particularly anxious for China, which has considerable sway with North Korea, to take a lead position in the six-nation negotiations that have been going on with North Korea.

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