Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World by Gordon G. Chang Random House, $217 Trying to make sense of international efforts to disarm North Korea of its ambitions to own nuclear weapons is like trying to follow three-dimensional chess. Ostensibly, all six countries involved in the talks favour a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. That includes North Korea, which - in theory, at least - is willing to trade its purported nuclear weapons for aid, recognition and light-water reactors. Everyone, it would seem, is singing from the same sheet. In reality, all the participants have conflicting agendas. China wants to appear to be the good world citizen by hosting the negotiations and to gather any favours that might come its way. But Beijing has relatively little interest in nuclear proliferation. Indeed, it has been a proliferator itself. The Chinese simply don't believe North Korea would be stupid enough to drop a bomb on them. South Koreans can't bring themselves to believe their brother Koreans would use a nuclear weapon against them and many may harbour a secret pride that fellow Koreans might have the bomb. Japan is obsessed with regaining its nationals abducted by the North in the 1970s. Russia is mostly along for the ride. And what of the US? Its policy is torn by a perpetual ideological tug-of-war. One faction wants to pressure North Korea into collapse; the other sees little choice but to negotiate. In such circumstances, you need a scorecard to keep track of the players. Gordon C. Chang's Nuclear Showdown attempts to provide one, but with limited success. The chapters on Japan and South Korea are good in describing their particular obsessions. The chapter on North Korea is intriguing in showing a society under- going more foment and change beneath the surface of repression than a lot of observers have noted. Chang doesn't appear to have ever been in North Korea. That in itself isn't crippling. Many a good journalist has returned from Pyongyang with nothing much more than impressions of empty boulevards, sterile buildings and statues of the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung. Nuclear Showdown is supported by impressive secondary source material, including interviews with aid workers, scholars and politicians. But all too often it's punctuated by extraordinarily sweeping, often dubious or contradictory statements. We're told that 'no person in Japan takes pride in Article 9' (the section of the constitution renouncing war). On the next page, Japan is 'a nation that is still influenced by a pacifist mentality'. 'Kim Jong-il will soon be able to land a nuke anywhere in America,' the author declares on one page. A little later, maybe not: 'At this moment, the North Korean leader cannot put nuclear warheads on his missiles, even short-range ones.' Former US president Jimmy Carter is gratuitously criticised as a 'dictator groupie' on one page then lauded as a 'global human rights advocate' on another. 'To his lasting credit, [Jimmy Carter] brought a much needed emphasis on democracy to America's Korean policy.' The penultimate chapter, in which Chang ties up loose ends and presents his thoughts on a solution to the nuclear crisis, appears muddled. He seems to suggest at first that the US should disarm to give it the moral persuasion to force Pyongyang's hand. Then he comes down in favour of unilateral military action, even though it might cost millions of lives. 'The loss of any South Korean diminishes the world, of course. But should it deter America?' he writes. Some South Koreans might demur. No one can doubt the urgency Chang feels, but the reader is still left puzzled about what should be done.