- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

It is common ground among those who know how to deal with a blackmailer that the best way out is to remove the leverage. If he says he has some embarrassing letters, make a full disclosure to the injured party and ask for forgiveness. If he threatens physical harm, stall him off until you can defend yourself. Or remove the potential target of aggression from harm's way.
President Bush has said Kim Jong-il is engaging in nuclear blackmail.
Mr. Kim has withdrawn from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; expelled international monitors; and removed the seals on containers of nuclear fuel which could be used in weapons production. It is common ground among foreign policy analysts that our two most sensitive points of leverage are the current preoccupation with separating Saddam Hussein from weapons of mass destruction, and the presence of 37,000 conspicuous American troops in South Korea who may be readily annihilated by a barrage of North Korean artillery fire.
A pre-emptive strike against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea appears to be out of the question. The reasons for this are obvious.
First and foremost, there is no real assurance that a preemptive strike will take out Mr. Kim's entire nuclear arsenal, and he may use the remaining weapons to retaliate against us or our friends in the region. Close second are our troops whose lives will be certainly be at stake in any military confrontation.
The administration says it will not deal directly with Kim Jong-il, a hardened Stalinist with a long bloody history of blowing up civilian airplanes, kidnapping, human-rights violations and starvation of his own people. Then there is Mr. Kim's studious cultivation of weapons of mass destruction in violation of a spate of U.N. resolutions, and a detritus of broken agreements. To negotiate with Mr. Kim is to reward proliferators and give into blackmail. This the United States surely cannot be seen to do. We have no reason to believe Mr. Kim is likely to change his ways. So instead, our negotiating is done for us by our restive client, South Korea, our newest friend, President Putin of Russia, and our most wary friend, the Chinese.
Kim Jong-il is a bitter pill to swallow. In toasting Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she visited Pyongyang in 2000, he said he would give security guarantees if America recognized North Korea's "sovereignty." But according to the North Korean constitution, North Korea's asserted sovereignty is over most, if not all, of the peninsula.
Indeed, the administration painted itself into a bit of a corner early on in abrogating the Clinton/Albright policy of direct negotiation.
Politically, that makes it difficult to resume official talks-particularly with Mr. Kim's gun at our head. No wonder that senior American diplomat John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, declared oxymoronically that, "We're prepared to talk directly with North Korea, but we'll not negotiate." The distinction is plainly without a difference.
So what is the way out? How do we remove Mr. Kim's leverage? The first objective to wait until we have dealt with Saddam we achieve by that formidable weapon in every trial lawyer's bag of tricks: delay. We continue talking, even through intermediaries, re-air old proposals and new innovations even though there is no reason to believe Mr. Kim will give up his nuclear option.
It is strange to embark upon a policy of futile negotiation. What and where is it likely to get us? At a minimum several months will go by, we no longer need the troop deployment in the Middle East and our military stance will be more formidable.
Meanwhile, we engage in a little blackmail of our own: continue the embargo on oil shipments; and prevail upon North Korea's sources of assistance principally the Republic of Korea and China to curtail aid that inevitably winds up directly or indirectly in Mr. Kim's military budget. This is clearly the Bush approach. But will it work?
Long term, we should move toward a nonaggression pact with North Korea. On the premise Mr. Kim will keep his nuclear arsenal, we get verifiable assurances he won't proliferate. After all, India and Pakistan have nukes, why shouldn't another, smaller Third World country with a starving populace?
In exchange, we agree not to attack them, a subject about which they are nothing short of paranoid. And we also agree not to prevent others from furnishing some level of foreign aid. Mr. Kim is likely to go for such a deal that he will violate anyway over time.
Meanwhile, we pull out the troops in a staged withdrawal. South Korea's new liberal president , Roh Moo Hyun, has tested the relationship anyway by making plain his intention to embrace the North in reunification. And more and more South Koreans, particularly the young, reportedly resent the 50-year presence on their soil of the U.S. military.
Thus, we come to the endgame. Checkmate. It may be just that simple.
You have lost your leverage, Kim Jong-il. If you do it again, it will be a regional problem that China and South Korea must solve for themselves.
The lady knows all about the letters. The blackmail is no longer possible.

James D. Zirin is a partner in the New York office of the law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood LLP. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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