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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: North Korean Crisis Brewing




Few Americans realize it, but U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration is already drifting quietly away from Kosovo toward its next big foreign-policy crisis: North Korea. You can look for this one to burst forth within the next few weeks.


The Clinton administration's policy toward North Korea ? a policy of incanting the totemic word "engagement," pretending everything is fine and stalling off Congress ? is nearing the end of the line, in not one way but two. First, the White House has been waiting for weeks for Kim Jong-il, North Korea's leader, to respond to a package of proposals carried to Pyongyang by former Defense Secretary William Perry. But there's been no reply. Second, North Korea has been moving forward with plans to test another new missile, a longer-range version of the one it sent over Japanese territory last August. Such a test would anger the Japanese even more than the one a year ago.


The test would represent an epochal event not only for Korean technology but also for United States foreign policy. Since 1993, the Clinton administration has been fretting about what it calls "rogue states" ? North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya and other countries that it believes operate outside the rules of international behavior.


If the North Korean missile test is successful, it will represent the first occasion in which a rogue state will have the capacity to reach the U.S. with a missile carrying weapons of mass destruction.


This week, the top members of the Clinton foreign-policy team are convening to try to figure out once more how to deal with North Korea. One question is how specific the administration should be in warning what will happen if North Korea launches that new missile. The more precise the warning, the more likely it will have an impact in Pyongyang. Will a missile test mark the end of any chance for North Korea to obtain normal ties with the United States or a lifting of the U.S. trade embargo? Will the administration pledge not to give any new assistance to North Korea, already the largest single recipient of American aid in East Asia?


Of course, the more detailed the warning, the more the administration will be obliged to carry through with its threats if North Korea goes forward with the missile test. And the prospect of such a showdown is unsettling for this administration, which has been airily insisting for several years that its North Korea policy is working.


Last fall, the administration named Perry to direct a thorough review of how America is dealing with the North Koreans. He drew up a package of initiatives, suggesting that the U.S. offer North Korea an upgrading of relations and an easing of economic sanctions if it will curb its development and export of missiles.


But North Korea has not signed on to the idea. And the final report on North Korea that Perry was supposed to have sent to Congress is now long overdue. Even the determinedly polite Japanese and South Koreans said this week it would be nice if Perry's report was finally submitted.


The underlying problem is that the Clinton administration doesn't want to give Congress the bad news that its policy of engagement with North Korea isn't working in the way the White House had hoped. North Korea may well be interested in extorting more food, energy and money from the United States and its allies. But the leaders in Pyongyang don't seem to want either to give up the weapons of mass destruction that they can use for blackmail, or to accept a broader relationship with the outside world that could weaken their own hold on power.


Five years ago, the administration worked out a deal to freeze North Korea's nuclear weapons program, believing that it might mark a fundamental change in Pyongyang's menacing behavior. It hasn't. Now, the danger is that this year's showdown with North Korea will lead to another short-term deal in which Pyongyang may be paid off once again for pledging not to test its missiles.


Let's hope the Clinton administration can come up with a longer-term solution this time. Its policy of engagement toward North Korea wasn't supposed to open the way for an endless pattern of threats and extortion.


Jim Mann covers foreign policy for the Los Angeles Times.