Carter Reveals the North Korean Psyche

June 23, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — When, during the Boer War, a British general boasted that he had managed a retreat without losing a man, a flag or a cannon, a wit added, ''or a minute.'' The Clinton administration seems pleased with its policy regarding North Korea's nuclear-weapons program, but that policy looks like a disorderly retreat.

Jimmy Carter says the crisis with North Korea is over. It may be, if the crisis is not about how to stop the weapons program but how to extract President Clinton from his declaration that North Korea's acquisition of such weapons would be intolerable.

Mr. Carter is either a modern Merlin or a megalomaniac. Either he has convinced Kim Il Sung to mind his manners and mend his ways, or he has convinced himself that the world has no hurt that cannot be cured by applying to it the poultice of his personality.

North Korea's drive for weapons of mass destruction began shortly after the Korean armistice in 1953. For four decades Mr. Kim has compelled his captive people to eat turnips so that the military could fatten. Now North Korea does not even have enough turnips but probably has its first nuclear weapons and is tantalizingly close to the capacity to make, and sell, many more.

The Clinton administration has continued U.S. concern about NorthKorea's handling of plutonium dating to 1989.

Confronted with President Clinton's declaration that North Korea's nuclear weapons program must stop, the 82-year-old Mr. Kim's strategy has been to buy time. Enter Mr. Carter, fresh as paint, lively as a cricket and as serenely sure of his rightness as is the average saint.

Mr. Carter says Mr. Kim is eager to give it all up, this labor of 40 years, if the United States will assuage the insecurities that drove him to do it. There is in this a whiff of the ''blame America first'' school of foreign policy, which held that the Cold War was a silly misunderstanding largely occasioned by American obtuseness and paranoia. But Mr. Carter is a veteran domesticator of communist dictators.

As on the occasion of Mr. Carter's famous kiss in Vienna with Leonid Brezhnev, there are today assurances that a new era is dawning. Sadly, the Carter-Brezhnev romance hit the rocks when Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan, an event President Carter said taught him an awful lot about communism.

Mr. Kim, who must find Mr. Carter among the less inscrutable Occidentals, has one tactical goal while his scientists hurry their work. Thatgoal is to change the subject. And suddenly the subject is a meeting between Mr. Kim and South Korea's president for the purpose of ''easing tensions.'' The subject of plutonium, the crucial ingredient in nuclear weapons, seems about to be lost in the shuffle.

While in North Korea Mr. Carter told CNN that there would be peace in our time if the United States would stop the foolishness about sanctions and would be more forthcoming. Soon President Clinton materialized in the White House press room (it had probably been hours since he had been on television unburdening himself about something), there to, in effect, engage in a dialogue with Mr. Kim through Mr. Carter.

Mr. Carter judges the Korean leader to be ''vigorous, intelligent, surprisingly well-informed'' and ''very frank.'' As for his terrorism and tyranny and violation of agreements, Mr. Carter is not judgmental. He says ''this is something that's not for me to judge.'' But he does know that ''they are not an outlaw nation.''

The world's impression that North Korea is among the poorest and most primitive nations, suffering regular food and power shortages, is,according to Mr. Carter, another of those misunderstandings it is his mission to rectify. He says the capital, Pyongyang, is full of pep -- its shops remind him of the ''Wal-Mart in Americus, Georgia'' and at night the neon lights remind him of Times Square. So there.

He says economic sanctions could make North Korea, well, difficult because sanctions would be an ''insult'' to North Koreans and ''impossible for them to accept,'' a conclusion he came to ''after observing their psyche and their societal structure and the reverence with which they look upon their leader.'' Mr. Carter did all this observing of psyche and society during fewer than 90 hours there.

It would be nice if this cameo appearance in the geopolitics of the 1990s would remind Mr. Clinton, who came to power demonizing the 1980s, how dangerous the 1970s were because of President Carter and people like him.

However, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci, the man handling the North Korean problem for the first Democratic president since Mr. Carter, says, ''I think we are all on the same sheet of music.''

If they are in harmony, the future is in jeopardy.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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