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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 8, 2007

COMMENTARY
U.S. all talk in dealing with N. Korea

By Richard Halloran

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

In a step toward nuclear disarmament, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, left, was prodded by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, right, to speed things along during Yang's visit to Pyongyang last week.

XIA YU | Associated Press via China's Xinhua News

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Hearts are fluttering once again among the disarmament folks over renewed hopes that North Korea finally will take the first step toward giving up the nuclear ambitions of its leader, Kim Jong Il.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have visited Yongbyon, site of North Korea's primary nuclear facility. The U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, has been received in Pyongyang. China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, urged Kim Jong Il last week to move things along. The six-party talks central to this process are to resume this month or next.

Skeptics, however, have cautioned that not everything will go well. The North Korean regime has a long history of reneging on promises to other nations while keeping promises to the North Korean people, foremost of which is Kim Jong Il's pledge to retain nuclear arms to deter what he sees as a U.S. threat.

Graham Allison, who specialized in arms control as an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and is now at Harvard, wrote recently that even if the Yongbyon plant is disabled, much remains to execute an accord reached in February by the six parties North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. It calls for North Korea to shut down all of its nuclear sites.

Allison warned: "Expect lengthy slogging through incomplete records, all in Korean script, missed deadlines, disputes about who can visit where, and all the other antics" that have frustrated those who have dealt with North Korea.

Confronted with this likelihood, the U.S. appears to have a new strategy, which is to play for time by adopting the North Korean tactic of talk, talk and more talk until Kim Jong Il either gives up his nuclear weapons or his regime collapses. Whiffs of dissent have been wafting from Pyongyang recently, making regime change a possibility.

Said an American insider privy to this scenario: "The U.S. will take note of North Korea's nuclear weapons but we will never accept North Korea as a nuclear nation. We will never tolerate a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons."

The game afoot has ruled out military action to destroy North Korea's nuclear sites. Bombs and cruise missiles could do enormous damage but would most likely trigger a North Korean attack on South Korea. Tens of thousands of South Koreans would die in artillery barrages before South Korean and U.S. forces could overrun North Korean positions.

Instead, in this developing strategy, American negotiators will continue talking while implementing what might be called the five "nots." The U.S. will not:

  • Extend diplomatic recognition to North Korea, thus depriving it of a status that Kim Jong Il is said to be eager to attain.

  • Sign a treaty replacing the truce that ended the Korean War of 1950-53 because North Korea will not give assurances it will reduce its forces along the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.

  • Remove the threat of U.S. nuclear weapons that could strike North Korea from submarines in the Pacific or with ballistic missiles or bombers based in the U.S.

  • Offer substantial economic aid to a North Korea that has been stricken with famine, limping industrial output and financial disruption for a decade.

  • Open trade and investment relations with a nation that, like China, could benefit from access to American markets, technology and capital.

    The Bush administration already has drawn fire about this strategy and can expect more, especially from China.

    John Bolton, President Bush's former ambassador to the United Nations, reflected the so-called neo-cons in an article last week, asserting: "The Bush administration has effectively ended where North Korea policy is concerned, replaced for the next 18 months by a caretaker government of bureaucrats, technocrats and academics."

    Chinese leaders have long said they will keep North Korea afloat. David Frum of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, wrote in June that Beijing dreads a North Korean breakup. "Chinese leaders know that such a collapse," he said, "would unify the peninsula under a democratic government based in Seoul and aligned with the U.S. and Japan for them, a terrifying outcome."

    Nor will North Korea roll over easily. Rodong Shinmun, an official newspaper in Pyongyang, said last week that North Korea's "mighty war deterrent for self-defense has become an invincible shield for curbing reckless war provocations of the bellicose forces at home and abroad."

    Doesn't sound much like a nation ready for nuclear disarmament.

    Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia. His column appears weekly in Sunday's Focus section.