The Clinton administration's recent decision to reduce sanctions on North Korea, and reports of wartime killing of Korean civilians by U.S. troops, should remind us that the Korean peninsula involves not feel-good foreign policy but the frustrating and morally ambiguous world of power politics. To pretend otherwise is grossly irresponsible in light of the rising risk of war.

The core problem is the unresolved Korean conflict. A hard-line but patient North Korean regime, hostile to the United States and Japan, awaits an opportunity to finish the war that was put on hold in 1953.South Korea is the front-line state against North Korea and a linchpin in the vital Asian economic order. That's why the U.S. stations 37,000 troops there. The strategy has reassured the South and deterred Pyongyang from launching another blitzkrieg for 46 years. But it promises American casualties in wartime and puts the troops at risk even now.

China prefers a divided Korea to one united and friendly with the United States. If wartime momentum pulls U.S. and South Korean troops across the border, China might intervene.

Washington's grim choices are clear. If we tolerate the status quo, we face the threat of war as long as North Korea exists. If we fight North Korea, we risk fighting China. If we appease North Korea, we endanger South Korea. If we withdraw altogether, we lose influence in an imbroglio that involves all these countries and Japan.

Unfortunately, North Korea has become more dangerous and less malleable than ever in the 1990s. Famine has killed two million people and could prompt it to try a diversionary attack on the South. A Somalia-like collapse in the North could provoke intervention by South Korea and China, and bring us in to aid the South.

Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile programs make an unstable situation even more dangerous. In 1994, threatened by U.S. air strikes, it grudgingly promised to stop developing nuclear weapons in exchange for a peaceful atomic energy program funded by the United States and its allies.

But reports indicate that nuclear military research continues as the North threatens proliferation to bargain for more food aid. Meanwhile, it sells missiles worldwide, undertakes little economic reform, and infiltrates commandos into South Korea.

Nevertheless, Washington and Seoul have joined with China to stabilize the North. In 1997 China and the West provided nearly two million tons in food aid. The United States also persuaded Pyongyang to apologize for its armed incursions into South Korea, establish enterprise zones, and host potential foreign investors.

Yet Pyongyang still links North-South peace negotiations to the unlikely event of a separate U.S.-North Korean treaty and withdrawal of American troops from the South.

Seoul, too, rejects rapid unification because of popular bitterness and the recent economic crisis. It would rather offer advice and investment. Wary of China and Japan, Seoul wants to host U.S. troops after unification. This strengthens China's resolve to prop up North Korea.

We should thus expect the divided peninsula to be a problem for a long time.

Recent events provide little room for optimism. The Clinton team just reduced economic sanctions to coax the North not to test-fire a missile that could reach Hawaii.

This was a good move; it presumably stopped the test, facilitated private dollars in North Korea, and bought time until the next flare-up.

Crisis diplomacy and brinkmanship, however, depend on credible threats and periodic shows of force by both sides. If either side pushes too hard, things will explode.

What to do? There are no easy answers.

If North Korea does implode, the United Nations should deploy a multinational force to police Pyongyang's military arsenal. This will threaten China less than a contingent led by the United States, South Korea and Japan.

The current North Korean leadership, however, shows no signs of losing control.

More likely, its truculence, combined with allied frustration and fear, will force Washington into coercive action to defend its friends and maintain regional leadership.

Because Pyongyang cares little about its own people, any plan should target its most treasured physical and military assets. But air strikes could trigger general war and conflict with China. A less flammable option if threats don't work is to support a coup by reformers or power-hungry officers who are willing to deal with foreign powers.

These difficult choices explain why the United States avoids bold moves. At the very least the American public should know how and why their soldiers stand in harm's way.

At most, we should ask our leaders to reduce less essential commitments, like building a multi-ethnic Kosovo or meddling in Indonesia, so the North Koreans know they have our full attention.

The Korean War has already killed millions of Koreans and Chinese and 34,000 Americans. Spreading our resources too thin for the sake of CNN-driven foreign policy is hardly worth risking a real war in Asia.