North Korea's ploys make summits a sham

August 30, 2002|By Richard Halloran

HONOLULU -- On a crisp day in the autumn of 1972, a South Korean diplomat named Lee Bum Suk was among those escorting a delegation of North Koreans on a stroll through the manicured Secret Garden of the Chang-Dok Palace in Seoul.

The North Koreans, the first to come openly to Seoul since the end of the Korean War in 1953, were there to negotiate and had been greeted with applause and hopes for a cooling of tension.

In the Secret Garden, as he came out of a pavilion, Mr. Lee was asked what had been accomplished. His reply was succinct: "Not a damned thing." He was right, because the talks went nowhere.

Two years later, a North Korean agent tried to assassinate President Park Chung Hee and killed his wife instead. In 1976, two U.S. Army officers were murdered by axe-wielding North Koreans near the truce site at Panmunjom. Over the next few years, scores of North Korean commandos continually infiltrated the South.

Then, in October 1983, Lee Bum Suk, by now the foreign minister of South Korea, was in Rangoon, Burma, on a state visit when a bomb planted by North Korean agents killed him and 16 other South Koreans. In charge of North Korea's clandestine operations abroad at that time was Kim Jong Il, now the "Dear Leader" of the North Korean regime.

This bit of history is pertinent to what is happening in Korea today. Once again, a North Korean delegation has been in Seoul, and once again, hopes have been raised that this time something constructive will come of the negotiations. Moreover, the North Koreans have indicated that they want to talk seriously with the United States and have even suggested they might be willing to have a dialogue with Japan.

Before anyone declares peace, however, it might be well to remember that North Korean bureaucrats are world-class thugs, in the original Hindi meaning of the word. These are not persons with whom civilized nations have a mere difference of political opinion or who operate within the bounds of acceptable international behavior to resolve conflicts. The North Koreans make the Mafia and its Japanese counterpart, the Yakuza, look like schoolboys in a cricket game.

Aidan Foster-Carter of the University of Leeds in Britain, an authority on North Korea, recently wrote: "Again and again, we start over with North Korea without asking what went wrong the last time or how come we never get past first base."

Mr. Foster-Carter, writing in the electronic newsletter PacNet that is published by the Pacific Forum in Honolulu, counts four "false dawns" since 1972. One was the summit meeting between President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in June 2000. The northern Kim promised a return visit within the year, but more than two years later, he has not set foot in Seoul.

An American specialist on North Korea, Chuck Downs, who has written a book on Pyongyang's negotiating style, says: "Through its negotiating strategy, the North Korean leadership has avoided political and economic collapse time and again during the past five decades."

"North Korea does not enter into negotiations because it seeks agreements," Mr. Downs asserts. "Its objective is to gain concessions and benefits merely as a result of consenting to talk."

He points to three stages in North Korea's strategy: "The regime makes encouraging initial gestures, then hardens its posture and ultimately condemns its opponents for not accepting its demands."

Still another authority on North Korean diplomacy, B.C. Koh of the University of Illinois at Chicago, says: "The most salient feature of North Korea's tactical behavior is brinkmanship."

Mr. Koh, born in Korea and a naturalized U.S. citizen, sees three steps: "Precipitate a crisis; leave the door open for negotiation; and, once negotiation gets under way, do not yield until the last minute."

He notes that North Korea "reserves its right to change its mind any time," and thus is not bound by agreements it makes.

Mr. Koh adds a critical element to understanding North Korea's negotiating posture: "The military has increased its influence in North Korea under Kim Jong Il," he says, which helps to explain why North Koreans have repeatedly demanded that the 37,000 U.S. forces in South Korea be withdrawn.

With North Koreans starving, their economy in a shambles and their government isolated even from allies in China and Russia, will they seriously negotiate for help from South Korea, the United States and Japan?

Maybe. And maybe the sun will come up in the west tomorrow.

Richard Halloran is a free-lance journalist and writer who lives in Honolulu.

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