By Joel Brinkley

No other country presents so serious a problem for the world today, and no other problem seems as insoluble: Right now, North Korea's malign behavior could conceivably draw the United States into still another war.

As Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, said Monday, "tensions" on the Korean peninsula could "spin out of control."

Most everyone considers North Korea mercurial, unpredictable. But in fact, its behavior usually follows a consistent pattern -- if you consider its two greatest needs. It demands to be respected, and it covets copious aid.

Look at what happened in the weeks before the North opened fire on Yeonpyeong, the South Korean island. Earlier in November, the United Nations reported that North Korea desperately needs food aid. Half the nation's children are malnourished; some are actually starving to death. North Korea's leaders obviously don't care much about that. But if the people are starving, then the "Great Leader" Kim Jong-il and his mandarins probably don't have everything they want, either.

Twice in recent weeks, Kim ventured to Beijing to ask for additional aid. Twice he came back empty-handed. Growing more desperate, Pyongyang asked the South to resume cross-border tours of Mount Kumgang, a popular North Korean resort. In the past, South Korean visitors spent millions of dollars there -- foreign currency the North desperately needed. South Korea refused.

North Korea then told the south it would permit family-reunification visits once again -- if the south provided 300,000 tons of fertilizer (in desperately short supply) and 500,000 tons of rice. Once again South Korea said no.

What could North Korea do next? No one was showing respect. No one was offering aid. So the military opened fire. After that, the world did suddenly pay attention again, and at first they followed the script. Everyone urged China, North Korea's only ally, to restrain its neighbor. President Obama made his call on Monday. China, as usual, refused and instead invited the United States and other nations to Beijing for talks -- just what North Korea had wanted.

Around the table, the North Koreans could once again demand bounteous aid in exchange for a promise of no further attacks.

Well, this time was different. The U.S., Japan and South Korea refused to attend. By now, they know the game. When a North Korean official showed up for the talks last Friday, nobody else was there.

So what happens next? Expect a stronger, more deadly attack. Earlier this year, the North sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors. Last month it opened fire on that island, killing four people. Pyongyang didn't get what it wanted, so those attacks "are likely only the beginning of similar North Korean provocations over the coming year or so," said Bruce Bennett, a senior North Korea analyst at the RAND Corporation.

That could present ever more serious problems. The South Korean government is stinging from the latest attack. The defense minister was forced to resign. Opposition politicians are calling the ruling party weak and irresolute. So this week South Korea is conducting live-fire exercises off the Korean coast and warning of air strikes should the North attack again.

For North Korea's leaders, Bennett told me, nothing so effectively burnishes their images as attacking the South. Who knows what they might do if the South aggressively responds to a future provocation? The North has more than 5,000 medium-range missiles aimed at Seoul. A few days ago, the government announced that it had added 100 more. They could destroy the city.

We can hope North Korea is not so foolish. And I am sure Kim knows that if he used even one of his nuclear weapons, "we'd turn North Korea into a parking lot," as Condoleezza Rice once said when she was secretary of state. I doubt the view is much different now.

But don't forget that a mutual-defense treaty between the U.S. and South Korea remains in effect. The U.S. maintains a 28,500-man military force there, headquartered at Command Post Tango, a bunker complex carved deep inside a mountain just south of Seoul. I've been there. It's ready for war at a moment's notice.

Most likely, the officers in Command Post Tango will never have to push the button that starts the war. But it is more than unsettling to know that Kim, a half-crazy drunkard, is calling the shots. The world seems impotent to stop him. And, depending on what he decides to do, Kim could draw all of us into a terrible conflict that nobody wants.


Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.


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