Another Excellent Adventure?

Another Excellent Adventure?

Better to negotiate the North Korean problem

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

LOS ANGELES -- One big-bad evil dictator in the bag -- one more to go?

Quite obviously, the discovery of Saddam Hussein cowering in a hole in Iraq won't exactly hurt George W. Bush's chances for reelection. But it needs to be understood that, with or without the capture of Saddam, Iraq was never going to be the defining issue of next year's U.S. presidential election.

The American jury is generally a patient one, and that jury was still a long way from pulling the rug out from under the president, especially with the lives of so many U.S. men and women on the line in Iraq.

But the American jury doesn't want to get hung out to dry on the next possible war. That would be the one against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, already identified as a member of Bush's "axis of evil" -- a virtual Iraq twin.

Worse yet, North Korea is said to have sufficient quantities of highly enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons. In other words, like Iraq, it is said to possess weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological. But does it? And did Iraq?

This is the worrisome credibility gap for the Bush administration, even as it understandably celebrates one bad-guy down.

But as regards Kim Jong-il, North Korea's answer to Saddam, no one is certain whether he has even one ready-to-detonate bomb.

What do we know for sure?

The American Central Intelligence Agency has gone on record: North Korea has one or two bombs ready for action. But the CIA has been wrong before. And the last time I checked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China, I was told North Korea in fact had none. But governments, not just China's, have been known to lie.

Is there any truly reliable information? A conference on North Korea organized last week by the Asia Society of Southern California was a bit more helpful. The consensus seemed to be that the North Korean threat was in fact being sexed up. Of course, "the consensus" is often wrong.

During the conference -- Engaging Korea: The Emergence of Nuclear North Korea -- the consensus was driven by the strong views of career U.S. diplomats Charles Kartman and C. Kenneth Quinones, veteran Korea experts. Having worked during Republican as well as Democratic administrations, they would seem to have no political axes to grind. But they plainly regard North Korea as a negotiable issue rather than a 10-alarm national-security fire.

Kartman, an internationally respected State Deparment careerist since 1975 who has been a special U.S. envoy to Korean peace talks, was almost contemptuous about current policy. He termed it "anti-diplomacy" and at one point excoriated it as, jokingly, "faith-based."

Quinones, who served the United States in South Korea from 1981 to 1987, conducted several successful negotiations with the North Koreans. One led to the recovery of the remains of 8,100 Americans who had been officially missing in action after the Korean War.
But Quinones was not diplomatic last week. Bush administration policy toward North Korea, he said, "has destroyed all the trust gained with North Korea over the last 10 years. The prospects for the successful implementation of nuclear disarmament are very weak."

To be honest, it was depressing to witness these gentlemen in such a distinct dither: We look to them for an unflustered measure of balance. But their despondency was severe enough to be noteworthy. Here were dedicated public servants deriding our policy toward Pyongyang as a potential disaster.

But are they being unduly alarmist? After all, the Bush administration delivered on Saddam -- it got him. Perhaps North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-il will read the rat-hole tea leaves, worry that he might be next and throw up his hands in resignation.

If not, is war with North Korea now the next excellent adventure under Bush?

Perhaps University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings, the delightfully cantankerous author of brilliant books on North Korea, captured the mood of the conference best with this clever line: "With North Korea, are we talking about the issue of highly enriched uranium -- or, rather, highly enriched intelligence?"

The Lyndon Johnsonís presidency blew up somewhere along the road to the credibility gap when his administration tried to paint the troubled battlefield picture in Vietnam in glowing colors. These days, the Bush administration often has been accused of hyping the Iraqi threat.

And so, too, with the North Korean one?

While the American public is happy that Saddam is in the bag, it won't likely bite a second time. Bush should quit while he is ahead and stick with diplomacy ­- even for rats such as Kim Jong-il. A wild goose chase across the Korean peninsula for another cruel dictator is not high on the list of American desires.

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Tom Plate is a professor of Policy and Communication Studies at UCLA. He is a regular columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, the South China Morning Post, The Straits Times and the Honolulu Advertiser. He is a member of the World Economic Forum, and the Pacific Council on International policy. The author of five books, he has worked at TIME, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Mail of London. He established the Asia Pacific Media Network in 1998 and was its director until 2003.

For publication and reprint rights, contact Tom Plate at or John Simpson ( of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.