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Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Pyongyang: keep the gloves on for now

LONDON -- There is no question that the anachronistic communist regime in North Korea threatens the peace in Northeast Asia. In the absence of good intelligence, however, it is difficult to estimate the extent of the threat. American intelligence on Iraq was faulty, and it is doubtful whether the CIA has reliable evidence about North Korea. Apart from signal intelligence and what can be obtained from defectors, satellite photography provides most of the agency's intelligence. However, it must be assumed that North Korea has worked hard to hide its weapons of mass destruction in underground chambers or in caves.

Nevertheless, information coming from diplomats and others who have lived in Pyongyang for a significant amount of time suggests that North Korea's military might may be exaggerated. Of the million men claimed to be under arms, it seems likely that a large proportion, perhaps nine of 10 men, have had little more than militia training and are generally employed much of the time in agriculture.

Observers report that North Korea's infrastructure has deteriorated in recent years. Railway lines are limited, slow and inadequately maintained. Road surfaces are full of potholes and broken concrete. As a result, journeys by rail or road take much longer than they once did. North Korean heavy industry no longer operates and many factories have been shut down. Tractors hardly exist or are in very short supply, while trucks, even in Pyongyang, are mostly old.

These reports and the absence of any evidence that North Korea has tested nuclear weapons suggest that it is unlikely the regime has a large arsenal of usable modern missiles that are capable of presenting a long-term threat to regional peace. Nevertheless, we cannot be sure whether the regime has any untested nuclear weapons or could develop them quickly. Moreover, it is likely that North Korean artillery could cause huge damage to Seoul in the event of hostilities. We cannot, therefore, afford to write off a short-term threat from the regime.

It would, of course, be suicidal for the North Koreans to use untested nuclear devices or to start hostilities with the South, but some regimes, cut off from the rest of the world and lacking a proper and full understanding of the situation and intentions of other states, might in desperation take such self-destructive action. The regime, through its public statements and actions -- e.g. its admission that it kidnapped Japanese nationals -- often seems inept and insensitive. Its leaders do seem to believe that America poses a military threat to its survival. U.S. President George W. Bush's unwise "axis of evil" speech followed by the invasion of Iraq could be so interpreted by an ill-informed regime.

There are two schools of thought about how best to deal with North Korea. One favors a "soft' approach aimed at developing contacts to coax the regime into becoming more open to the outside world and appreciating better the difficulties that it is creating for itself.

This group argues that Pyongyang is ready to send students abroad if foreign countries are prepared to pay the costs. Such students on return would open the eyes of their brethren and help to change the regime. While accepting that North Koreans have been thoroughly brainwashed, this group rejects the idea that such students would merely be spies for North Korea and potential terrorists.

This group would like to see much greater efforts to get information into North Korea, which has been starved of information from abroad. It believes that the regime will tolerate such efforts and notes that the U.N. food program has been able to bring in supplies and supervise distribution to those in greatest need, thus showing that the rest of the world is not necessarily hostile and bent on the destruction of the North Korean regime.

The hardliners reject such an approach as appeasement and believe that the only effective way to deal with the evil regime in the North is to tighten the screws by economic sanctions even though the regime has declared that it will regard such sanctions as a hostile act. They advocate that North Korea be cut off from funds from abroad (e.g., from North Korean residents in Japan), and prevented from exporting arms and narcotics by strict controls on shipping to and from North Korean ports. They believe that as a result of such actions, the strains within North Korea would then become so great that the regime could implode. They believe that the regime's threats over nuclear weapons are a bluff and that the bluff should be called.

An implosion in North Korea may not happen when a population has been brainwashed for over half a century and suffered years of privation and malnutrition. If the economy did suffer a total breakdown, the international community could not stand aside and allow the North Korean people to starve to death. South Korea would feel obliged to help its compatriots in the North. But North Korea is in a far worse state than East Germany was before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the economy in eastern Germany is still not fully integrated with or up to the same standard as the economy in the western part of Germany. The burden on South Korea would be huge and destabilizing.

My dislike of communist dictatorships and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in particular makes me instinctively a hardliner. Japan and South Korea cannot take the risks lightly, but I am not convinced that at this stage the hard line is the right one to take. Emphasis should, for the present at least, be placed on patient diplomacy, and further efforts should be made to open up the North through food and other aid, so long as such aid can be properly supervised and is not used to prop up the regime.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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