North Korea – the least of the axis's three evils?

The Bush administration now faces a serious quandary over North Korea.

Long one of the most reclusive countries in the world, with one of the few hard-line communist regimes remaining, it is suddenly making overtures and offers of dialogue to the United States.

It is one of the three nations that make up President Bush's "axis of evil."

With another one of the three – Iraq – Mr. Bush is already engaged in a serious diplomatic confrontation that could soon become military.

In Iran, the third nation in the axis, the situation is complex. Its Islamic fundamentalist government still supports terrorism abroad, but is beset at home by cries for reform, and a restless new generation of Iranians.

So the question for the Bush administration is: Does it dismiss the North Korean initiative as manipulative posturing that does not represent a real change of heart, or does it engage with the North Koreans in the hope that their threat to peace and stability can be tempered?

There is no question that North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il is edgy about Bush's militancy in neutralizing nations that represent a potential threat to American security. Says one US Asian expert who maintains contact with the North Koreans: "I wouldn't say it's the driving force in their new attitude, but Bush has certainly gotten their attention."

The decision the Bush administration must make in shaping its response to the North Koreans has a number of complex dimensions.

Bush must gauge the sincerity of Pyongyang's new mood. Is this just a ploy to mute American hostility and get US aid for a North Korean economy on the ropes? Or is it a real turning away from the communist ideology that has brought ruin to the country's infrastructure and misery to its people? The latter seems unlikely.

A well-placed US source says that when Mr. Kim visited China recently, the Chinese communist leaders tried to convince him that he could open up his country without losing control. Kim reportedly replied that the Chinese experiment along these lines was interesting, but not for him. Other sources say he has researched Eastern European systems as he seeks to reinvigorate his economy, but remains reluctant to institute political reforms first.

The same internal debate that has gone on in the Bush administration over policy toward Iraq will likely take place as top officials debate the response to the initiative from North Korea. Hard-liners, probably at the Pentagon, will express understandable skepticism about North Korea's real motives and intentions. Others, probably at the State Department, will argue the moment must be seized to exploit an apparent window of openness.

The US will not be working in a vacuum as it considers revising its policy toward North Vietnam. Japan and South Korea are two other key players.

The new Pyongyang overture to the US was funneled through Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, himself engaged recently in summitry in North Korea to unfreeze long frigid relations between Japan and North Korea. Kim made an astonishing apologetic admission that his country had kidnapped 11 Japanese nationals in the late 1970s. This has captured screaming headlines in Japan. But the storm is not over, and Mr. Koizumi must tread delicately on Japanese-North Korean rapprochement until there is full accounting, and return of the remains of those who died, with explanations of why two of the kidnapped died on the same day.

In South Korea, too, the timing and methods of reconciliation between North and South is of immense political import. Last week, the barricades at the demilitarized zone were opened in symbolic celebration of an agreement to reconnect the railway line between the two countries. There has also been agreement on family reunions, soccer, and tae kwon do matches, and economic development, but not much on military matters, that, of course, bear significantly on the presence of 37,000 US troops in South Korea.

It is unlikely the US could resist pressures to engage in at least preliminary probing discussions with the North Koreans.

The main US interest would be in curbing North Korea's nuclear weapon and long-range missile programs that potentially threaten the US, along with its large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons agents.

But before progress on this, let alone North Korea's massive conventional armaments, there would need to be a program of confidence-building measures appropriate for the removal of long years of American suspicion and skepticism. It will not be a swift or easy process.

• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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