David H. Hackworth
Column 8


As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, President Clinton and his aides say North Korean President Kim II- Sunk may have nuclear weapons and could attack South Korea. Sanctions are threatened, which North Korea calls "an act of war." Because threats don't sit well with cornered tigers, an unpredictable North Korea could feel prodded to attack.

With Washington's leadership acting like an eager Dr. Kevorkian, the two Koreas and southern Japan could find themselves hooked up to a suicide machine. But we'll be hooking ourselves up as well, beginning with the 37,000 American soldiers stationed there.

We should never forget, our last war in Korea -- a three-year fight against a fanatical foe. Although their army was third-rate and small, it took them two days to take Seoul and only two weeks to almost drive our forces into the sea.

After we recovered, we punched our way to the Chinese border. Then Red China stepped in and dealt our forces a stinging defeat.

Next followed a two-year stalemate during which our casualties doubled, even though we had strong forces and control of the air and sea. In 1953, the "Forgotten War" ended about where it started, and since then both sides have been staring down the mean end of their gun barrels.

After a war that leveled the country, South Korea climbed out of the rubble and built a modern nation. North Korea, following the Soviet example, neglected its economy, remained combative and rebuilt its military. It now has the poorest economy in the region, but one of the largest armies in the world.

Korea II would make the first war look like a pillow fight. North Korea has an army superior to that of the South, not only in numbers of soldiers and combat gear, but also in fighting ability. The only way that South Korea, with two U.S. brigades assisting, could stop an attack would be by asking for U.S. nuclear weapons to be used. The Reds probably would respond with chemical warfare.

The prevailing wind in the region blows south. Radiation and poisonous gases would hit both Koreas and southern Japan. Millions of people would die, and within two weeks Korea would look like the inside of a blast furnace.

We would not be treated to a replay of Desert Storm. Air power would fail. Smart weapons wouldn't work against a country that has secretly buried all vital materiel under mountains. There are no U.S. conventional munitions to knock it out even if it could be found.

American reinforcements wouldn't arrive until after the massacre, as it would take up to 90 days to move sufficient forces to Korea. It's doubtful there would be airfields or ports to receive them because the Reds have 100,000 Special Forces troops trained to blow things up behind the lines. With the rugged terrain, freezing weather and 2 million armed-to- the-teeth combatants slugging it out, it would be an unparalleled holocaust.

Everyone involved in this madness should chill out and take a longer view. The answer is not the military solution that failed in Somalia, but the political solution that worked against the Soviet "Evil Empire."

It's crazy to consider a military solution in which millions would die because intelligence experts suspect North Korea has the bomb. The United States didn't attack Pakistan when there was hard evidence that country was building a nuclear weapon.

Time is on our side. North Korea is in the same shape the former Soviet Union was in before it bellied up. North Korea, like Cuba, is on the verge of economic collapse. Without one shot being fired, President Kim's regime will fold, and the two Koreas will reunite as did the two post-Cold War Germanys.

Talk is the way to go -- not a war in which the consequences would be so horrific. And besides, what's the rush? North Korea has been a wild card for decades. A few more years -- with the bomb or without it -- won't make a lick of difference.

President Clinton should ask Kim to join him for talks during the holiday season. Let the White House take the initiative to put a peace gift under the tree.