San Jose Mercury News, August 24, 2003 Sunday 

Perspective

Deciding whether N. Korea will bluff
Diplomacy can work if dictator is using threat to get aid

By KARL SCHOENBERGER

In the 1959 Cold War film satire ''The Mouse That Roared,'' a tiny European principality declares war on the United States in hopes of being summarily defeated and given reconstruction aid to stave off economic collapse. Nobody pays any attention to the invading party until one of the many characters played by Peter Sellers accidentally gets his hands on the ''Q-bomb,'' the ultimate new weapon of mass destruction.

It's not entirely implausible that North Korea's ''Dear Leader,'' Kim Jong Il, who is a noted film aficionado, took a cue from this madcap movie. The Q-bomb, which turned out to be a dud, was a bluff in the tradition of masterful statecraft. Sellers saved the economy -- and got the girl -- in the happy ending.

Consider the sanguine possibility that Kim's plan all along has followed this script -- threaten the world with nuclear blackmail to get desperately needed economic aid, and at the same time, keep himself in power. If so, there's still a chance that diplomacy will work.

But resolving the dangerous stalemate with North Korea through diplomacy will most likely require a leap of faith on the part of the Bush administration, which remains deeply divided on whether Kim is a desperate man who would jump at a face-saving peaceful solution or a pathological liar intent on preserving his weapons programs.

For weeks now, critics who fear that foot-dragging is increasing the chances that North Korea will reach the point of no return have been urging the administration to take that leap. Now that North Korea has agreed to multilateral talks, slated for this week, those analysts say the United States has a real chance to test Kim's true intentions -- but only if the administration is committed to trying for a diplomatic solution.
 
Sought-after statement

What's required is a willingness to chip away at Kim's post-Iraq paranoia by responding seriously to his shrill and unbending demand for a ''non-aggression pact.'' No U.S. president would sign such an agreement, and Congress would never ratify it. But the U.S. delegation could break the ice by making an unambiguous statement that America does not intend to strike militarily at North Korea.

The statement would carry more weight than past assurances because it would be witnessed in a formal context by North Korea's sympathetic former benefactors, China and Russia, who are party to the talks along with U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.

So the success of the talks will depend in good part on the screenplay being hammered out in the White House right now. For convenience, let's oversimplify the debate: Followers of Secretary of State Colin Powell see the benefit of engaging North Korea and negotiating down the road to disarmament, while hard-liners like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, suspect diplomacy is futile and argue for forcing the collapse of the Kim government.

''I think the six-party talks are a good idea, but the key is whether the United States is going into these talks to advance a program, or just make speeches about how bad North Korea is like they did the last time,'' said former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who is now at Stanford's Institute for International Studies.
 
Conflicted policy

Perry warns that the Bush administration's conflicted Korea policy has allowed the situation to spin out of control and raises the odds of a disaster.

''They have to deal with security assurances, and this is the opportunity,'' Perry said. ''The timing is very important right now because it's going to get harder and harder to monitor and verify any agreement'' on dismantling North Korea's nuclear program.

There's still the possibility that the talks could open the path for a step-by-step resolution, analysts say, that over time would result in the end of North Korea's nuclear programs and its integration into international society. It would have to allow the return of the U.N. atomic weapons inspectors it kicked out in a tantrum months ago, and make a commitment to transparency that deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein didn't think necessary. It would also have to stop selling missiles and weapons technology on the global black market.

In return, Japan and South Korea would be encouraged to provide food aid, and China would continue shipping fuel. A round of agreements on diplomatic recognition could follow. A reformed Kim government could be taken off the U.S. list of terrorist states, opening the floodgates to multilateral aid.

But to start down that path, the competing factions in the administration will need to speak with one voice. Until now, the administration's messages to Kim about his survival have been conflicting. President Bush and Powell have said publicly that the United States does not intend to seek a military solution. But they've made it clear that before relinquishing military options or talking about economic aid, Pyongyang must first dismantle its nuclear weapons program in a way that is verifiable and permanent. Confidence building around this dialogue has not been a priority.

On the very day that sensitive Chinese and Russian diplomacy persuaded North Korea to make a concession and participate in Wednesday's six-party talks (finally giving up on its insistence on negotiating directly with Washington), Bolton publicly excoriated Kim as a tyrannical dictator.

His remark was not inaccurate, yet Bolton won't be joining his counterparts at the Beijing conference. If excluding him was a diplomatic face-saving gesture to Kim, however, there's been little effort spared on other fronts to stoke North Korea's paranoia. U.S. officials have broadcast what would appear to be an overarching strategy to engineer the eventual collapse of Kim's Stalinist government through economic sanctions aimed at choking off its already moribund economy.
 
Increase in pressure

The United States and Japan are already cooperating in a plan to police North Korea's large ''invisible economy,'' which derives hard currency from drug trafficking, smuggling and illicit arms sales. And last week, the administration intensified the pressure by announcing plans to carry out a naval exercise in September that will train allies how to stop the transfer of weapons. North Korea would be the prime suspect in such dragnets.

Will Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly lead the U.S. delegation to Beijing with marching orders to add a carrot to balance the rhetorical stick? A round of three-way talks in April, involving Chinese hosts, broke off when U.S. negotiators kept their hands in their pockets and the North Koreans stormed out.

''I think it's the engagement folks, not the hard-liners in the Bush administration, who are in charge of this meeting,'' said Peter Hayes, director of the Nautilus Institute, a Berkeley think tank that specializes in nuclear non-proliferation issues. ''But they need to get the ball rolling. If the United States isn't willing to put out some icebreaker at the beginning, the North Koreans are going to dance around everyone's ankles biting them.''
 
A cornered Kim

If North Korea feels trapped -- either by its own recklessness or by the Bush administration's approach to the powder keg of the divided Korean Peninsula -- even the craftiest movie director won't be able to straighten out this confounded plot.

Don't look for a happy ending anytime soon. But if there's a chance that this obstreperous mouse can be persuaded peacefully to stop roaring, this week's meeting could be crucial. To figure out the story line, see whether the United States offers any real concessions. Then you will know who claimed the starring roles in this drama -- those who don't want to give diplomacy a serious shot, or those who do.

KARL SCHOENBERGER is the Mercury News' Asia-Pacific correspondent. He has covered Korea and Japan for other publications over the past 20 years, and is the author of ''Levi's Children: Coming to Terms With Human Rights in the Global Marketplace.''