North Korea is the foreign policy crisis that counts. It is the line in the sand for the Clinton Administration. Unlike Bosnia, Somalia, or Haiti, a nuclear-armed North Korea is a direct threat to America and American interests around the world. Think for a moment of a gulf war in which Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. Or a World Trade Center bombing with an atomic device.
Three Administrations have dithered while Pyongyang developed missiles and atomic weapons. Belatedly, the Administration has proposed a two-phase plan to have the U.N. impose sanctions on North Korea. Mild penalties would be followed by the tough stuff--an oil embargo and Tokyo's blocking of $1 billion in annual remittances.
The Clinton plan has potential. The Administration is correct in taking time to manufacture a coalition with China, Japan, and South Korea. But the U.S. must insist on a specific timetable for triggering action. North Korea has already said that it is quitting the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors its nuclear development. At a certain point, three or six months, the sanctions must bite.
President Clinton must also go beyond sanctions. He must explain to the American people why the proliferation of nuclear weapons to anti-American nations and terrorist groups is the single most significant threat against this country's security in the post-cold-war era. For Clinton, it is time to don the hat of Commander-in-Chief.