- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

Efforts to reach an agreement with the North Koreans to terminate their nuclear weapons program again have hit a snag. While an agreement among all six parties to the talks was reached last month, within 24 hours after signing the document, Pyongyang, unsurprisingly, announced a contrary interpretation. The unsuccessful outcome of any agreement into which Pyongyang enters stems, in part, from the North Korean psyche — one devoid of truth, one committed to garnering prestige for its leader, Kim Jong Il, and one seeking to maximize Pyongyang’s return at the other side’s expense.

As one who has traveled to North Korea 10 times, I came to realize firsthand my hosts were incapable of confronting truth, even as it stares them in the face.

Visiting Pyongyang, one cannot help but notice the most prominent feature on the city’s landscape. Downtown stands an unfinished hotel, soaring more than one hundred stories high, in the shape of a narrow pyramid. When I first observed the building in 1994, not only was it unoccupied, there were not even signs of construction activity to complete it. Despite what was obvious, I was informed the hotel was still under construction. In making my last trip to Pyongyang 10 years later, I still noted no progress but, once again, was informed the hotel was under construction. What my hosts refused to acknowledge was it would never be finished — for North Korean building design errors resulted in windows on higher floors popping out. But, rather than admit this or seek foreign engineering assistance, the North Koreans insisted on denying the truth. (I often wonder which will be the first to collapse in Pyongyang — the hotel or the regime; my fear is it will ultimately be the hotel.)

The North Korean psyche in furthering the prestige of Kim Jong Il has been evident over the years. Five years ago, following a visit to the U.S. by a high-ranking North Korean official, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il. These visits gave new hope to Americans that a rapprochement — after decades of glaring at each other across the DMZ — might be possible. But in the final analysis, the visits only served to further Kim Jong Il’s status at home, while the U.S. gained nothing for its efforts.

Earlier in 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung had made an historic visit to Pyongyang as well, to meet with Kim Jong Il in an effort to improve relations between the two Koreas. The meeting improved the North Korean leader’s image in the eyes of the international community. The agreement reached by the two governments beforehand, however, provided there would be two meetings between these leaders — the first in Pyongyang with a follow-up meeting in Seoul. The second meeting has yet to take place as the North Korean psyche finds a reciprocal visit unnecessary since “the mountain has already come to Muhammad.” (It should be noted, although unknown at the time, Seoul paid Pyongyang hundreds of millions of dollars for Kim Jong Il to agree to the meetings.)

Two months ago, the North Koreans sent up a trial balloon, suggesting a willingness to remove what has served as an irritant between Washington and Pyongyang for 37 years. In 1968, in a brazen violation of international law, the North Koreans seized the virtually unarmed U.S. spy ship Pueblo as it sailed just outside that country’s territorial waters. One US sailor was killed and, after 11 months of captivity, the remaining 82-man crew was released — although the Pueblo still remains in North Korean hands. Pyongyang has now let it be known the vessel (the first American warship captured since 1807) could be returned to the U.S. in return for an official visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Once again, Pyongyang seeks to gain prestige for its leader by having “the mountain come to Muhammad” in return for little of consequence by the North Koreans.

U.S. negotiators have a daunting task ahead of them in reaching an agreement with a government devoid of truth and good faith, that looks to strip assets from any agreement it enters, leaving behind liabilities, and that seeks only to enhance the prestige of its leader at the expense of the other side’s shattered hopes for peace.

Realistically, such a North Korean psyche leaves the U.S. with but three options: (1) Concede Pyongyang’s right to continue production of nuclear weapons; (2) Reach an agreement so detailed in verification and monitoring terms that even the North Koreans — with no intention of abiding by it anyway — would not sign it; or (3) Take a more aggressive course to force discontinuation of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Unfortunately, absent a regime change, options (1) and (3) may be the only viable ones — with the only decision whether we deal with the threat sooner versus later.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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