North Korea sees U.S. as paper tiger

June 16, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Seoul, South Korea -- ANYONE in the Clinton administration who still thinks that actions (or non-actions) don't matter, please listen:

"The most alarming thing we have seen was U.S. policy toward Somalia," Si-Uk Nam, the knowledgeable managing director of the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper here, told me. "We witnessed the U.S. send troops, then withdraw when they pulled the corpse of an American pilot through the streets. We were very eager to see how world peace would be managed in the New World Order, but Clinton has not seemed very interested."

A day later, an American diplomat here was speaking thoughtfully about North Korea and its hard-line President Kim Il Sung and his playboy successor/son.

"Yes," he said, "there are reports that Kim Jong Il thinks he's jerking us around diplomatically, because of our patience and our elasticity."

Only two weeks before coming to this troubled peninsula, I was in the Dominican Republic talking with that nation's premier diplomat, Ambassador Fabio Herrera. He talks regularly with the Haitian generals, who are the Caribbean's version of the North Koreans.

"The Haitian generals talk all the time about Somalia," he said. "They laugh and say that, even if the Americans were to invade, they would just kill a few Americans and then they would leave."

Which brings us to several questions in this increasingly precarious equation here: Is this the crisis that sober foreign policy analysts in Washington have been worried President Clinton would thoughtlessly get us into? Are we about to see acted out before us some horror that could have been avoided by consistent policies pursued through an intelligent use of American power?

The answer to those questions is, unfortunately, "yes." Our appearances of weakness in the world, our indecision based upon a nearly total misunderstanding of traditional uses of power, and our embarrassment over any use of American power are all combining in a potentially lethal brew.

What should the United States have done over the past year, when the crisis was still manageable? It is abundantly clear that we should first have quietly but effectively strengthened our military forces on the DMZ. One example: The United States has effective counter-battery radar, which could wipe out North Korean artillery in minutes; its artillery is massed just north of the DMZ, and yet the radar, according to all reports, has not yet been sent.

The administration's oft-expressed position is that we have been so patient over this past year because we wanted to try to give the North every opportunity to respond positively on the nuclear question. But that is to dangerously misunderstand the psychology here: that "understanding" policy, which would work just swell with Sweden or Denmark, has not worked with an implacable foe like North Korea because it cannot work. And so, trying the impossible, we have lost invaluable time.

Indeed, in this past year, the North not only has consistently conned the international community, but also has created a dangerous pro-Kim Il Sung student movement in the South, which has fed on the picture of a United States unable to cope across the globe.

Now that all those possibilities for keeping the North at bay have been lost while we were trying so hard, surely the administration has gotten the word?

Well, actually, no. We are now ready (without China, and without Japan's enthusiasm) to impose sanctions against the North Koreans, but only ones that would deprive them of cultural and technical exchanges. And they are such enthusiasts for exchanging culturally with the rest of the world!

And if that is not bad enough, who should be on his way to the North this very week but ex-President Jimmy Carter! Whether his trip is blessed by the White House or not, remember that Mr. Carter was the president who wanted to withdraw American troops from Korea; now, there's another tough message to send to Kim Il Sung.

Beyond Korea, I see something else deeply disturbing here in Asia. The Clinton administration's image of willful haplessness is beginning to diminish the power and prevalence of the true internationalist principles -- the rule of law, aid to the unfortunate, international agreements -- that the "American Century" had so encouraged across the globe. Today, whether China or Africa or the Caucasus, country after country is falling away from those principles that the United States has until now exemplified. If this transformation continues, that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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