- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo was in Washington this weekend to offer Beijing’s assistance in trying to end the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program. Mr. Dai, who was in Pyongyang last week, is trying to convince the Bush administration to negotiate directly with the regime of Kim Jong-Il, with Beijing sitting in the middle as mediator. This marks minor progress on the road to a solution, and a diplomatic accomplishment for the White House, as Secretary of State Colin Powell has tried to get China to play a more prominent role in the crisis over its little neighbor. Despite the step forward, media attention over the past week concentrated on Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry’s prophecy that the United States and North Korea are heading for war. Mr. Perry’s prediction is no more helpful than Chicken Little crying that the sky is falling.

It is true that peace on the Korean peninsula is unstable, as it has been since the 1953 armistice ended the war there. Just five days ago, troops from the North and South exchanged machine-gun fire. Last year, there were at least six casualties in a brief sea battle between the two sides. But these skirmishes have occurred for 50 years. What potentially makes the scenario more dire now is Pyongyang’s claim last week that it had completed its program to reprocess 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium, and that it would use the material to produce warheads. At this juncture, it is necessary to remember that there is no proof that Pyongyang’s statements that it has weapons-grade plutonium are true. The Stalinist regime has made exaggerated claims and threats in the past in successful efforts to extort aid from the West. This could be more of the same.

If it is true that Mr. Kim could have a handful of nukes by the end of the year, as Mr. Perry says, it is relevant to note that the developed state of the program is a legacy of the Clinton presidency, in which Mr. Perry helped craft foreign policy as secretary of defense and later as North Korea policy coordinator. He has a personal stake in criticizing Bush policies because it distracts from the mess that he, Mr. Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright left America. In his comments last week, Mr. Perry denigrated the Bush administration’s consideration of sanctions to coerce Pyongyang as “naive” — which is ironic given the Clinton administration’s failed attempts at bribery. In a 1994 accord, the Clinton team tried to pay North Korea to give up its weapons program by promising 500,000 tons of fuel aid per year. The oil was delivered, but Mr. Kim did not keep his part of the bargain and was not even required to surrender his nuclear fuel rods, which are now the center of the controversy.

The State Department conspicuously has not used the word “crisis” to describe the situation with North Korea. Perhaps this is because there is hope that Beijing’s decision to play a role will help. We are not Pollyannaish about the intentions of Communist Chinese leaders, but Korean stability is in their interest, and the regime does have closer ties to Pyongyang than any other nation. China has enough troubles feeding its own population of over one billion people without a war increasing the exodus of North Korean refugees into the Middle Kingdom. The White House wants Seoul and Tokyo involved in negotiations as well, which would put all of the central parties at the bargaining table. These talks are needed to craft a peaceful way forward, and progress is being made to that end.

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