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IS U.S. REALLY READY AND WILLING TO ENTER FRAY OF A KOREAN WAR II?

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The countdown to the second Korean war appears to have started.

After 15 months of playing games with the International Atomic Energy Agency, North Korea sent IAEA inspectors home last week and made it impossible for them to prove it had diverted reactor fuel to its nuclear weapons program.And after 15 months of offering concessions to North Korea to dissuade it from bomb-building, the United States moved to seek U.N. sanctions against the communist regime in Pyongyang.

For his part, North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung has threatened to view imposition of sanctions as "an act of war." He may be bluffing, but it would be dangerous to assume so.

Kim took the world by surprise by suddenly invading South Korea in 1950, triggering the Korean War that cost America 150,000 casualties, including more than 50,000 dead. Since then he has amused himself by dispatching terrorists to try to kill South Korean presidents.

At this point, sane members of the world community must make two assumptions: Kim has one or two atomic bombs and means to get more. And he is entirely capable of ordering his 1.1 million-man army to march south.

As to the bomb. North Korea is a dirt-poor country that has made an enormous investment in a reprocessing plant. Its only use is to turn spent reactor fuel into bomb-grade plutonium.

As to an invasion. Kim is 81 and running out of time to bring the whole Korean Peninsula under his rule - his lifelong ambition. It would be true to Kim's megalomaniac nature to try one more lethal roll of the dice.

Interestingly, the sanctions Washington is pushing at the risk of war will not force Kim to yield. Sanctions have failed to bring even poor little Haiti to heel.

Pyongyang gets oil supplies from Iran, which loathes the West and is unlikely to comply with a U.N.-ordered boycott.

The U.S. stations 37,000 troops in South Korea and has a defense treaty with that ally. But before we take a collision course to armed conflict, a number of issues should be clarified.

How many lives are we prepared to sacrifice, given recent trends in South Korea? Seoul is not spending enough on its own defense; its youths are increasingly anti-American, and its bureaucrats discriminate against the United States in trade.

Korea is often described as "a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan." Please note: at Japan's heart, not America's. What is Japan prepared to do militarily if the peninsula erupts? In Korean War I the answer was nothing, except to profit by selling supplies to the Americans.

And can the American people trust President Clinton and his team, who have shown modest diplomatic and military skills, to effectively wage a land, naval and air war in Asia?

The United States should stop boasting that it is "the only superpower" and "the leader of the free world." It should convene a conference of the foreign and defense ministers of Russia, China, Japan and South Korea to gain their advice.

We should say to them: It's your neighborhood. What should be done? What will you do?

And, for once, we should listen.