Sunday, December 22, 2002

# Posted 5:35 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BLUFF OR STRATEGEM? North Korea has dismantled UN-installed monitoring equipment at the Yongbyon nuclear plant, thus raising the stakes in its conflict with the US. No doubt Kim Jong Il has taken notice of South Korean president-elect Roh Moo Hyun statement that he (Roh) is "the only person who can resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue." In other words, it seems Roh is willing to negotiate even though the US has said that it will not talk until the North agrees to shut down its nuclear weapons programs.

If one believes that Kim Jong Il is a competent diplomat, than his raising the stakes represents an assumption that the US will not be able to coordinate its efforts with the new South Korean government, thus enabling him to secure additional aid without disarming. If one believes that Kim Jong Il is a semi-educated shut-in, then his raising the stakes represents nothing more than traditional North Korean belligerence. Yet either way, the road from Washington to Pyongyang leads through Seoul. President-elect Roh has to vindicate his anti-American rhetoric by showing that he can be tough with the US. The Bush administration should take this into account, and accept that there is no point in a war of words. It may even be necessary to let Roh talk to Kim. What really matters is whether Roh is willing to offer Kim aid before he disarms. If Bush or Powell can win a commitment from Roh to withhold aid, then the US can continue to take a hardline against Northern violations of the 1994 pact.

Unfortunately, there is no pleasant way to deal with North Korea. Withholding aid may mean abetting the North's efforts to starve its own desperate population. But Kim alone bears the moral responsibility for that. If the North will not disarm, the US must ensure that no nation -- not China, not Russia and not South Korea -- sends aid to the North. Raising the stakes always benefits the gambler with the deepest pockets. Kim will recognize that he can disarm or watch his government crumble from within.

PS The Times has put up another embarrasingly bad op-ed on the Korean situation which asserts that "North Korea's behavior is not unpredictable" and that the real cause of tension on the peninsula is "an erratic United States policy that veers between neglect and overattention". I guess that's a reasonable conclusion if you just ignore the fact that North Korea was caught red-handed secretly violating an international treaty that its current government signed just eight years ago.

UPDATE: Rumsfeld is talking tough but holding out the prospect of a diplomatic solution.

UPDATE: In the WashPost, Maddie Albright's North Korea policy coordinator argues that we can't let the North divide us from the South. The tone of the argument is weepy and (liberal) guilt-ridden, but the basic argument is sound. On a related note, the Post's editors defend Bush for playing hardball with Kim Jong Il.
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