- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 16, 2006

Reactions following North Korea’s missile launches on the Fourth of July ranged from indignation to consternation and even wonder from the usual newspaper pundits and talking heads. Some have called North Korea’s mercurial leader Kim Jong-il a lunatic or worse. But it occurs to some of us, at least, that perhaps the “Dear Leader” had a coldly calculated objective in mind: the intentional division of the allies facing his representatives at the six-party talks.

The allies facing Mr. Kim’s emissaries (normally called “diplomats,” the North Korea representatives are often known for their less than nuanced or tactful approach) include the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia. Each nation has its own self-interest as the paramount factor influencing negotiations with North Korea. The allies are held together by the questionable supposition that the group’s aims are universal: But what Americans believe is important to the U.S. might not be totally agreed upon by the others, especially China and Russia.

Almost as soon as the rocket motor smoke cleared over North Korea, the United States began its effort to lobby China to intervene with North Korea. The U.S. diplomat in Asia managing the situation, Christopher Hill, said: “China clearly has a close relationship with the DPRK and the most influence, and we certainly would like to see what kind of leverage China has.”

The U.S. wants North Korea to return to the six-party talks, to give up its missile testing program and to cease its nuclear weapon development ambitions. The Chinese and Russian, it seemed, balked. Japan floated the notion of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, only to be rebuffed by China, Russia and South Korea.

President Bush called the leaders of China and Russia, seeking a unified response against the test firings. But China and Russia, each a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council with a veto over its actions, said they opposed punitive measures against North Korea. Japanese diplomats offered a resolution at the Security Council threatening sanctions if the North does not dismantle its nuclear program. China and Russia demurred.

In short, the nations have struggled to find a consensus on how to handle the situation with North Korea. The discord and division has likely delighted the reclusive communist nation, which often tries to drive a wedge between the nations seeking to pacify Pyongyang.

Almost as soon as it became apparent that Japan could not emerge with a positive outcome from Russia and China on its proposal for sanctions, Japanese officials called for an internal national debate on whether their country’s pacifist constitution would allow Japan to pursue military capabilities to pre-emptively strike at North Korean missile bases.

Since World War II, Japan’s constitution allows only self defensive forces and action in the name of the Japanese. The nation, for example, has no Navy: It has a “Maritime Self Defense Force.” Hawks in Japan would like to see more international involvement of Japanese forces.

But when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sent Japanese forces to Iraq to support the U.S. and other allies, the troops were permitted to engage only in humanitarian construction and nation building and were not even allowed to patrol the streets as U.S. and British forces do routinely.

Still, regional allies, like South Korea, greatly fear any hint of a re-emergence of the warlike Japan of yesteryear. South Korea and others are circumspect and fear Japan will use North Korea’s provocation as grounds to change Japan’s constitution, remove the restrictions on offensive action and even pursue nuclear weapons.

“You know, diplomacy takes a while, particularly when you’re dealing with a variety of partners, and so we’re spending time diplomatically, making sure that voice is unified,” the president said. “Let’s send a common message: ‘You won’t be rewarded for ignoring the rest of the world.’ ”

But by midweek the week after North Korea launched its missiles, the allies seemed divided and unable to forge a unified response. “China’s really trying. We’re trying. Everyone is trying except, unfortunately, the DPRK,” Mr. Hill told reporters, referring to the North by the initials of its formal name. “So far the DPRK seems to want to choose a road of deeper isolation.”

But that statement belied the facts. In truth, the allies can’t agree to the proper and unified response to North Korea. And we must also now face the fact that this may have been the objective of the “Dear Leader.”

According to Kenneth Quinones, professor of Korean Studies at Akita International University in Japan and former U.S. State Department director of North Korea affairs, Kim Jong-il “is not crazy or irrational. He’s calculating.”

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who also views Kim Jong-il as a calculating strategist, said China, while “definitely concerned about a nuclear North Korea,’ is “equally concerned about a Korea that disintegrates,’ causing an exodus of refugees into China. South Korea, naturally, has some of the same fear. Chinese officials therefore, might be reluctant to pressure North Korea as the U.S. suggests.

South Koreans have another fear Japan, Russia and China can’t always relate to: an enraged North Korea could gravely damage the South. Thousands of North Korean artillery pieces and tactical missiles are zeroed in on Seoul. If war ensues, South Korea’s capital could be severely damaged before an effective U.S. intervention.

So maybe Mr. Kim is not deranged at all. He created a difficult diplomatic situation for the United States on the Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day. This new challenge to the Bush White House — already grappling with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the greater war on terror and other crises — is requiring all its toughness and skill.

This weekend in St. Petersburg, President Bush will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their relationship has never been under so much strain. But Mr. Bush has shown his “personal diplomacy” on occasion can be highly effective.

Only nuanced diplomacy by the president, his secretary of state and the entire U.S. team can effect an agreement by the allies on what to do about North Korea.

John Carey is former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.

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