- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

As the old saying goes, "Sometimes even a blind hog roots an acorn." For unknown reasons, the Bush administration may soon have a chance to root one.

Following a very tense shootout between North and South Korean naval forces on June 29, Pyongyang surprisingly says it is ready for dialogue with Washington. In response, Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week he was not "not ruling out" a meeting with North Korea's Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun this week at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Brunei. In fact, Mr. Powell and Mr. Paek have already met there briefly and informally over coffee, and there could be another more formal meeting. Let's hope so.

The Bush administration has taken a series of almost schizophrenic policy missteps which have unraveled the considerable progress made under the previous administration's policy of constructive engagement of North Korea and which have damaged our relationship with our strong and loyal ally, South Korea.

The missteps were huge when President Bush said in his State of the Union speech that "North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens," then went on to link North Korea, Iraq and Iran: "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." Similar statements denigrating the North's leadership made by President Bush during his last trip to Seoul and the Demilitarized Zone drew a furious response from Pyongyang calling President Bush "a typical rogue and kingpin of terrorism" and the like. Recall that the standing U.S. policy toward North Korea over the past year has been to resume dialogue "at any time, any place, without preconditions." What?

As for South Korea, U.S. declaratory policy has been to support President Kim's "sunshine policy" aimed at North-South Korean reconciliation. The early successes of the sunshine policy hinged in large part on a resumption of U.S.-North Korea dialogue. Didn't happen. Our South Korean ally has been deeply disturbed by President Bush's remarks that have undercut the sunshine policy and, as President Kim Dae-jung stated on Feb. 25, increased tensions with North Korea to a "critical point."

The White House appears to have understood quickly that the "evil axis" and similar rhetoric engendered considerable backlash from abroad and from many American specialists on Korean affairs.

Thus, the president stated publicly that the United States remains ready to enter dialogue with North Korea if it withdraws conventional weapons from the Demilitarized Zone and halt arms exports. What? Those are major U.S. national security objectives to be achieved through negotiations with Pyongyang, and sure look like preconditions. No wonder Pyongyang has been stalling on dialogue. The Bush administration approach flunks Diplomacy 101.

The problem here is that the administration's approach has so far kept tensions high with Pyongyang; historically, wars start more often than not by accident or miscalculation at times of high tension. How would a Korean war play out? The U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command (CFC) would obliterate North Korea, probably in two months or less of high-intensity conflict. The CFC has total information dominance over the battlefield via overhead and signals intelligence. Whether it is North Korean command-and-control centers or major military units, if it communicates or moves, we kill it; if it does not move, we kill or bury it.

The result would be a CFC victory, but a "Pyrrhic victory." Why? In the first few hours of a short-warning war, North Korea would inflict almost unbelievable damage to our South Korean and Japanese allies and the Americans in both countries. Why is this? North Korea has the fifth-largest military in the world with enormous numbers of long-range artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers, mostly protected in underground facilities, and armed with chemical and biological warheads, within striking distance of metropolitan Seoul, South Korea's densely populated capital. Without moving, these weapons systems are capable of delivering up to 500,000 rounds per hour for several hours.

Worse yet, the North has more than 500 surface-to-surface missiles of various types, many armed with chemical and biological warheads. We should recall here that the CIA has long estimated that North Korea has enough fissionable nuclear material to develop one or two nuclear weapons. Some of these missiles can cover all South Korea and Japan where there is no effective missile defense. There are more than 80,000 American civilian and military personnel in South Korea and another 100,000 in various parts of Japan. Hundreds of thousands of our allies and Americans would die.

Not only is the Bush administration approach dangerous, it also lacks international support. Over the past year or so, more than a dozen nations of the European Union have taken major steps to normalize relations with North Korea, and many, including the United Kingdom, have established embassies in Pyongyang. They are convinced the most effective and safest way to induce change in North Korean behavior is through constructive engagement. The summits in which Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Jiang Zemin have engaged North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il over the past year and recent statements by their senior officials in favor of dialogue with Pyongyang provide evidence that most major international actors endorse constructive engagement.

So, what is to be done? Colin Powell could begin a more formal meeting with North Korea's foreign minister this week by acknowledging the fact that North Korea has not been involved in terrorism over the past decade, has denounced terrorism and signed two U.N. conventions against terrorism in the wake of September 11, and recently has permitted the return to Japan of Japanese Red Army terrorists.

He could then signal that, with the start of dialogue, we are prepared to remove North Korea from the U.S. List of Terrorist States and get on with serious negotiations about their weapons of mass destruction, missile sales and conventional forces.

Oink, oink?

William Taylor is a distinguished alumnus of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Eliot Walker is a research analyst with the CSIS' Japan Chair.

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