Vietnam War era, in our streets as well.
It is to Clinton's credit that America is fighting nowhere yet. Waves of trigger-itchiness come and go, sometimes abetted by a presidential remark or two, but Clinton just waits them out. Now, though, the war drums are growing more and more persistent: Something has to be done about North Korea - and quick. The first is certainly true - something indeed has to be done. But what's the rush?
To most Americans, the Korean crisis must be nearly incomprehensible. What with the IAEA and the NPT (International Atomic Energy Agency and the Non- Proliferation Treaty), fuel rods and plutonium, it suggests a college course to be avoided at all costs. Throw in some exotic names like Kim Il Sung (North Korea's leader) and Pyongyang (the capital) and you have all you need to get the average reader to turn in a near-panic to the comics. If so, the joke's on us. America may well be going to war in Korea.
But if war comes, it will only be after the Clinton administration has given North Korea every chance to get out of the box it has gotten itself into. That's because no one here knows for sure what North Korea's intentions are. Is Kim Il Sung really intent on developing a nuclear arsenal and, possibly, selling those weapons to other rogue states like Libya or Iraq? If that's the case, war is down the road a piece.
If, however, North Korea has blundered into its present spot or, by some wild chance, wants to leverage its nuclear program for some economic goodies, it's going to find an attentive ear in Washington. A second Korean war, after all, is almost unthinkable. Seoul, the South Korean capital, is within artillery range of North Korea. So, for that matter, are many of the 37,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in South Korea. Another Korean war would surely cost many American lives, devastate South Korea and conceivably - although not likely - see the use of nuclear weapons. At its minimum, this would be an ugly war.
In fact, the stakes are so high the administration is inclined to let bygones be bygones. If North Korea wants to retain ambiguity about its past nuclear program, the Clinton administration is not going to protest. What matters is the course North Korea takes in the future - not whether it has the two bombs the CIA says it may have, but whether it tests an atomic weapon and tries to develop others. Pulling out of the NPT would be a telling signal of intentions and so would removing cameras and other devices by which nuclear programs are monitored. These steps would certainly heighten the crisis.
Trouble is, that's the course North Korea seems to be on. It seems hell- bent on doing . . . what? No one can be sure. The only certainty is that it is playing a dangerous game. It said sanctions would be tantamount to war and the Clinton administration has promised sanctions. Moreover, an American military buildup is under consideration. The administration is serious about being taken seriously.
The Clinton administration is following a prudent course. Bit by bit, it is increasing the pressure on North Korea without issuing the sort of ultimatums that might be seen as a provocation. After all, time is not North Korea's ally. It's an old regime, deep into ideological senility. Its people are impoverished, the country near ruin. Some military units are not combat-worthy
because the personnel are undernourished, and in certain factories, managers fear that starving workers will faint and fall into the machinery. They fear the loss of the machinery, of course.
Sooner or later, North Korea will go the way of East Germany and, to the chagrin of South Korea, ask for a reconciliation - and a handout. In the meantime, though, the United States and other countries must deal with a maddening, if not mad, regime whose intentions are neither clear nor, maybe, rational. Either way, North Korea has to understand that it simply cannot have a nuclear arms program. The world, not to mention Bill Clinton, will not stand for it.
A war in the cause of non-proliferation may well be unavoidable. But a war based on misunderstandings and triggered by exaggerated notions of national pride ought to be avoided at all costs. If Clinton wants to take some time feeling out the North Korean position, then he ought to have it. What's the rush? There's always time for war.