- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

Public officials and media across the globe are glowing with optimism for new negotiations with North Korea. Nowhere are hopes higher than in the gulag state’s own neighborhood. A jittery Asia, which still hasn’t gotten back on its feet after the financial crisis of 1997-98, is desperate for stability. The situation across the region is grim: Indonesia is struggling to control separatist movements; the Philippines is coming unglued amid coup attempts and random mayhem; all of South Asia is a tinderbox; SARS has crippled Hong Kong; Japan is an economic basketcase; and China increasingly is exerting hegemonic influence abroad, while barely managing its myriad domestic crises. Unfortunately, Korea does not promise to offer a silver lining to this cloak of darkness.

One need only look to the past couple of days to find evidence for pessimism. Over the weekend, a spokesman for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced that the regime refuses to work with U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton in any capacity during negotiations. Referring to Mr. Bolton — one of the Bush administration’s most capable foreign-policy troubleshooters — as a “bloodsucker” and “human scum,” the Pyongyang official stated that, “We have decided not to consider him as an official of the U.S. administration any longer nor to deal with him.” This puts the anticipated negotiations at a standstill before they even begin. With Mr. Bolton’s expertise in the volatile Korean situation, the Bush administration would be caving to an unrealistic demand if it were to exclude him. But given the Asian aversion to losing face, it is unlikely Pyongyang will hedge on the demand.

Rarely does any administration have to face as thorough a diplomatic challenge as this one. Nobody on the right or left of the foreign-policy establishment has all the answers, and Mr. Bush doesn’t have the luxury of pretending the crisis isn’t imminent, as the Clinton administration did when it promised aid to Kim Jong-Il without demanding he turn over his nuclear materials. The biggest problem now is that the clock is ticking. As a Saturday editorial in Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun bluntly pleaded: “Don’t let North Korea buy time.” As North Korea’s nuclear program moves ahead on the technical front, it cannot be forgotten that the only non-negotiable term is that Pyongyang must be prevented from building a nuclear arsenal at all costs — and progress on nukes is being made every day. At some point, if time runs out and no diplomatic breakthrough has been made, the Bush administration’s caution may have to be abandoned for decisive action.

It is difficult to get excited about the possibilities of a breakthrough coming out of any negotiations with North Korea. Not only has the Stalinist regime of Mr. Kim broken every promise it has ever made about curtailing its nuclear-weapons programs, it continues to act in a manner that makes it impossible to take the government seriously. Just yesterday, for example, Mr. Kim won 100 percent of votes in “elections” for the Supreme People’s Assembly. On Saturday, Pyongyang stated that, “Any move to discuss the nuclear issue at the U.N. Security Council is little short of a prelude to a war.” This attitude does not signal that North Korea is in a mood to compromise. That will have to change to avoid war.

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