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A tap-dancing Colin Powell told the nation early last week that the situation with North Korea was “not yet a crisis.”

Powell and I both attended the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, where they beat into our heads the essential military lesson for making an “Estimate of the Situation.” And my school reading of the Korean tea leaves is 180 degrees from Powell: I think we’ve triggered a crisis with global consequences that could well be on its way to meltdown.

North Korea is a country wobbling on its last legs with an isolated, notoriously unstable leadership – from the goofy “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il to the hard-core septuagenarian military brass who’ve hated Uncle Sam with their dangerous “Irish of the Orient” passion since the Korean peninsula was divided in 1945. Now with President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” branding and more recent put-downs that probably further pumped the paranoia, another hand of wild-card nuclear poker must make perfect sense to crazies convinced they’re next on the chopping block after Iraq.

The past 40 years certainly testify to the secretary of state’s savvy. So maybe Powell has been spewing the party line – going along to get along with Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle and other New World Order neoconservatives who have the president’s ear – until he can convince Bush to cool the “High Noon” act and talk to the looney-tunes from Pyongyang.

Because North Korea – with its nukes, long-range missiles and a million armed-to-the teeth, fanatically obedient soldiers forward-deployed on South Korea’s border and backed up by almost 8 million reservists – ain’t a military pussycat like Iraq. The North Korean army has almost 40,000 cannons, mortars and missiles right behind its DMZ foxholes that are capable of pummeling the 14 million citizens of Seoul, the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division and elements of the South Korean army with 10,000 rounds a minute for at least eight hours with surprise preparatory fire. Then there are 100,000 Special Forces soldiers prepped to infiltrate through existing tunnels burrowed under the DMZ as well as by air and sea – a commando drill they’ve consistently been doing since and despite the 1953 Korean War cease-fire.

Unfortunately, in addition to a reported 7,000 antiquated tanks, the Reds also have tons of bio/chem weapons. If these poisons and nukes are used, it’s predicted that the prevailing winds will carry toxic clouds all the way to southern Japan.

True, South Korea has one of the toughest armies in the world, which it proved during the Vietnam War. But in the first few hours of this horror show, a big chunk of its 5-million-man-plus army deployed along the DMZ would be destroyed along with most of our 2nd Division – just as they were in November 1950.

Although U.S. smart weapons would soon blow North Korea back to the Stone Age, and the mechanized and reserve units that made it through the initial assault – coupled with American reinforcements – would eventually defeat the kamikazes from the North, it would be a sorry Pyrrhic victory in which the survivors from both sides would envy the dead.

Will this crisis come to such a war? When dealing with the unpredictable Hermit Kingdom, who knows? But if it does, countless millions will die, and both Japan and South Korea will be worse off than Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

And if war’s deflected – as it was in 1994 when Jimmy Carter parachuted in – and nothing’s done to close down the plutonium factory, we can expect North Korea’s nukes to go on the international auction block to the highest terrorist bidders, continuing the North’s tradition of selling weapons to any bad guys with bucks.

Powell needs to access his Sun Tzu: “You should not press a desperate foe too hard.”

Sun Tzu also says it’s a good idea to leave an enemy a graceful way out. Kim and his generals know the Bush-threatened economic sanctions could tip their close-to-terminal regime over the edge – in which case they might be planning to take as many enemy running dogs with them as possible. Insane to us, perhaps, but not without its own peculiar logic.

The best way to deal with a mad Korean chow could be behavior modification: Stop the threats and start tossing him some carefully selected bones to chew on.

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