- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

It is no longer the case if it ever was that the United States is failing to consult with Asian powers on North Korea. Across the globe, the past two weeks have witnessed a flurry of meetings and phone calls between Bush administration officials and their counterparts in South Korea and China. Indeed, the administration has made several public overtures directly to Pyongyang, the latest by the president himself. On Tuesday, Mr. Bush said he would consider resuming aid to North Korea if Pyongyang halted its nuclear weapons program. That's about as clear a start to deal-making as there is. Just as clearly, the media's construction of the president as a cowboy and of his administration as disengaged no longer hold true.
Which is a pity. There are a lot of exaggerated claims of short-term accomplishments that American diplomacy can realize. Most roads being discussed do not lead to curtailing North Korea's nuclear capacity much less the more serious threat of its penchant towards nuclear proliferation but to merely maintaining the blissful ignorance that existed for the last eight years. As such, the problem will not be solved anytime soon, and will likely persist into the next generation.
How we managed to pass up this opportunity so far can be traced to the State Department, where the North Korean portfolio has now been handed. Just as in other matters notably Iraq there is a very real difference of approach between Secretary of State Colin Powell and the firmer hands of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The recent moderations that flirt dangerously with appeasement more adequately reflect Mr. Powell's influence.
Whatever form the appeasements take, the United States already has ceded what was once one of its key objectives in dealing with North Korea to fundamentally change the negotiating process itself. Responding to Pyongyang's escalatory threats with newer and more distant lines in the sand only reinforces Kim Jong-Il's bad behavior. More importantly, it damages the United States' leverage in the area. After all, it's difficult to persuade Seoul and Beijing that Washington is serious about an isolationist approach when Washington fails to hew to it itself. Already, South Korean officials say that America's warmer attitude towards economic incentives is a sign of the ultimate wisdom of their "sunshine" strategy. The result is that, when it comes to North Korean "diplomacy," there will be more of the same.
So far, this is an opportunity lost. The fundamental problem with North Korea is not its nuclear arsenal or ambitions, but the man behind that arsenal and those ambitions. Any U.S. action should have Mr. Kim's collapse as the ultimate goal. Indeed, doing nothing would accomplish much. As it becomes evident to China and liberals in South Korea that the United States has no intention of negotiating a false solution, those governments will be compelled to exert their considerable leverage on Pyongyang. Some old China hands believe that Beijing is more concerned with North Korea's collapse than with its nuclearization, and as such would prefer to maintain its dilapidated neighbor than let it fall. But without U.S. intervention, a nuclear North would likely result in a nuclear Japan and South Korea. Combined with incoming president Hu Jintao's palpable disgust for Pyongyang, a hands-off approach by the United States could force China to play a more constructive role in bringing serious change to North Korea. Regrettably, the State Department's diplomats believe they are most useful when they talk.


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