It's time to talk

March 06, 2003|By Dusko Doder

WASHINGTON -- We should take a hard look at the Bush administration's gamble on the Korean peninsula. For only gambling men can hope that the crisis generated by North Korea's Stalinist dictator Kim Jong Il will go away by itself.

Mr. Kim, who has announced intentions to go nuclear, sees himself in a strong position. The United States is distracted by Iraq while Mr. Kim is, in effect, holding hostage about 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

In such situations, the first step is always to engage the hostage-takers and get them talking before it's too late. It's common sense. In this case, the de facto hostage-taker is demanding face-to-face talks with the Americans about a nonaggression pact and the Bush administration is refusing to sit down with the man it describes as a crazed tyrant. The refusal is couched in high moral principles: The United States won't give in to blackmail.

Rebuffed, Mr. Kim has issued more lunacy-edged threats that focus on one thing he knows the United States fears most: that he will develop nuclear bombs within months. Mr. Kim already has medium-range ballistic missiles and two nuclear bombs, according to CIA projections. Once he has a few more, North Korea will have crossed something of a magic threshold and become more or less immune to military strikes.

Mr. Kim has already punctured a huge hole in the president's "doctrine" of pre-emption by showing other smaller nations that strength and safety lie in building a nuclear deterrent. (North Korea is believed to possess chemical and biological weapons as well and has a powerful army.)

What's more, Mr. Kim will have valuable weapons to sell to rogue states and perhaps to international terrorists with access to large amounts of money. (Of all the reasons the administration has put forward for the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Kim's behavior is perhaps the most valid one -- better to defang Saddam Hussein before he acquires a few nuclear bombs.)

The Bush administration had insisted that the North Korean situation can be resolved through diplomacy but without dealing directly with Mr. Kim. This is something of a nonstarter that Washington still clings to while the clock tick-tocks down the months before Mr. Kim's arsenal may be sharply expanded.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's recent visit to the Far East is something of a halfway measure. He spoke with the leaders of Japan, China and South Korea in a bid to work out a common policy toward North Korea. That's hardly a cakewalk. North Korea's neighbors -- China, Russia, South Korea and Japan -- want the United States to give Mr. Kim what the seemingly demented dictator has asked for: direct talks.

Mr. Kim's main demand is that the United States pledge not to attack North Korea, a nonaggression treaty. This request is not as crazy as the administration's spin artists want us to believe. President Bush has included North Korea in the "axis of evil," and Mr. Kim, watching U.S. preparations to attack Iraq, might be excused for believing he might be next on the U.S. hit list.

Mr. Kim also wants money and aid. His impoverished country is perpetually on the verge of starvation, weaponry its only cash crop.

It's wrong for the administration to be coy or macho. The resumption of food donations to North Korea is a welcome gesture, but is no more than that. What is required is common sense to pursue the main objective: Get Mr. Kim to drop his nuclear ambitions.

President Bill Clinton did it in 1994. He worked out a deal in which North Korea froze its plutonium-processing nuclear reactor in return for an energy-but-not-weapons-producing reactor -- plus oil, food and U.N. inspectors at nuclear facilities. The arrangement was far from perfect -- and North Korea cheated anyway -- but without it, Mr. Kim might long ago have had a larger nuclear arsenal.

The Bush administration distanced itself from the Clinton deal. Its visceral horror at returning to Clinton policies explains, at least in part, its apparent inability to effectively deal with the North Korean crisis.

The administration should take the hostage-negotiator approach to stabilize and slow down the crisis. It needs to overwhelm Mr. Kim with diplomacy, both with the United States alone and with the four regional players. That's not giving in to blackmail -- it is smart diplomacy. By talking, Washington can probe for what the North Koreans really want and take steps to stop their nuclear weapons development.

This could be a first step to more creative long-term solutions on the peninsula.

Dusko Doder is an author, a former foreign correspondent and a free-lance journalist.

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