- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

Richard Armitage is intent on downplaying the hysteria a good number of people seem to be making of North Korea. "We really are pushing back on the notion of 'crisis,'" the deputy secretary of state told senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday. "Not so much because of Iraq but because why tell [Kim Jong Il] that he's got your attention?" Rather, Mr. Armitage prefers to call it a "big problem." The present U.S.-North Korea stand-off may be a big problem, but what's evident is that two crises are contributing to it.
The first is long-standing. It is entirely North Korea's, and it is a deep one. Thanks to mismanagement on a scale scarcely imaginable, the last wholly Stalinist state is crumbling to its core. Indeed, those aid organizations that work with refugees from the hermit kingdom say there is a decided temperament shift among refugees of late. Their anger is no longer directed at America and embargoes but at Kim Jong Il himself. While Mr. Kim has never shown an especial regard for his people, his own preservation is another matter entirely. This deepening crisis helps to explain why Pyongyang has once again resorted to nuclear blackmail.
But the second crisis is within the Bush administration, which has been positively schizophrenic in its dealings with Pyongyang. The latest reversal came Tuesday. After weeks of misguided talk of non-aggression oaths, the Bush administration let it be known that it is considering buttressing its military presence in Asia with more bombers, fighters, spy planes and, perhaps, troops.
While we're pleased to see that those administration officials who take a more skeptical view towards appeasement with Pyongyang are now asserting themselves, the constant shifting is an alarming demonstration that, internally, the Bush administration is far from agreement on North Korean policy. What's more, talk of military might is just as ill-conceived as January's conciliations. Worse still, it only plays into Pyongyang's hands. After all, what better way to give credence to North Korea's claim that the Yankee imperialists are set on destroying them than for the United States, already on the brink of a war in one theater, to bulk up its might in another? Indeed, an increased U.S. military presence in Asia only plays to the fears of those whom we are most trying to persuade, the Chinese and Russians. More unsettling, now North Korea has announced that it is prepared to strike "pre-emptively" against the United States.
Before everyone's knees turn to jelly, it's worth pointing out that these two crises together do not create one big crisis, and that this is still well within the realm of diplomacy. North Korea's pre-emptive threat was not it's first and likely will not be its last. Pyongyang's goal has always been to secure money, and there's no reason to think that anything has changed. And despite the possible U.S. military deployment to Asia a measure that is just this side of provocative Bush administration officials have no intention of turning this into a military conflict.
Still, the Bush administration's ad hoc policy is only creating problems, and it would do well to take some deep breaths before acting further. There are new administrations in South Korea and China that have yet to fully grasp the levers of power. Until those governments are in a position to make decisive moves, any U.S. response to North Korea will not only be premature, it will reinforce the false conception that this is a bilateral rather than multilateral problem. At one point, the Bush administration seemed to understand this. As the "big problem" first unraveled in late December, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States would not take any actions until more reasonable signals came from Pyongyang and that when it did, the response would come from the international community as a whole. In this case, at least, first instincts were right.

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