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Monday, Aug. 4, 2003

Pyongyang: victim of hawkish irrationality


Irrational, unpredictable, insane. These are just some of the epithets our media commentators have been using lately to describe North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il. But Shinzo Abe, Japan's hawkish deputy chief Cabinet secretary and chief architect of Japan's current hardline policies to North Korea, has a different view.

He accompanied Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for two days of intense negotiations in Pyongyang last September. In several television interviews since then, he has said quite openly that he found the North Korean leader to be highly "rational" (gori-teki).

The same cannot be said for Abe's policies. He forced Japan to renege on promises made in those September talks to allow abductees returned by North Korea to go back to Pyongyang to collect their kin. Yet somehow he could convince himself and Japan that the fact the abductees still do not have their kin is entirely the fault of North Korea.

In Japan you do not have to be gori-teki if your heart tells you be otherwise. The mere fact that you dislike the other side is enough to allow you to say and do as you like, it seems. Students of Japan's disputes with other nations -- the territorial dispute with the former Soviet Union, for example -- will be familiar with the syndrome.

Sadly the same seems to be true of the United States in its dispute with North Korea over that nation's alleged nuclear ambitions. The U.S. has reneged on its 1994 promises to normalize relations with Pyongyang and to help develop alternative supplies of nuclear and other power. Twice in the past (1994 and 1998) and again today it has shown willingness to bomb North Korean nuclear facilities.

In this situation what is North Korea supposed to do? Assume that the 1994 agreements are still in place? Lie back and wait to be bombed?

North Korea has promised to drop its nuclear talk if the U.S. drops its aggressive talk. Somehow U.S. hawks and hardliners are able to turn all this round to prove that aggressive talk is needed to stop North Korea's nuclear talk.

True, the world, including the U.S., has every reason to want to dislike the North Korean regime. It has behaved despicably toward its people. It's crazy policies have driven its economy into the ground. The adulation for great and dear leaders is sickening.

But like most communist regimes, there is a clear gap between domestic and foreign policies. In its policies to the outside world Pyongyang in recent years has behaved with logic and consistency, as even Abe was able to admit.

Beijing used to be another victim of Western hawkish irrationality. In the 1950s it suffered three times from U.S. nuclear threats -- once during the Korean War and twice during disputes over offshore Chinese islands being occupied by the Taiwan military and used as a base for sabotage attacks against China.

When the Soviet nuclear umbrella was withdrawn from China in 1959, Beijing had little choice but to set out to develop its own nuclear deterrent, finally achieved in 1964. Needless to say, that too was seen by U.S. hawks as proof of hostile Chinese intentions, with preemptive attack from the U.S. considered.

While developing its nuclear device, Beijing had to rely on the only other deterrent at hand -- the claim that China had the land mass and population to survive nuclear attack. This, too, was turned on its head by U.S. hawks, to become proof that an irrationally bellicose China was seeking war with the U.S.

Now it is North Korea's turn to suffer the same kind of inverted logic. It too has suffered the withdrawal of Soviet nuclear and other military support. Unlike China, it does not have the advantage of large population and land area. The need for some kind of credible deterrent against threatened U.S. attack is far greater. And once again the hawks turn round and say this proves it should be attacked.

The irrationality of the hawks goes beyond the nuclear problem. They demand liberalization within communist regimes. Yet, in almost every case, they have intervened to prevent that liberalization.

We saw this repeatedly with the Soviet Union with its various liberalization efforts -- beginning from the early 1960s -- frustrated by the hawks. We saw it, too, over China. The hawks had blocked China's tentative efforts to open up to the West in the '50s and early '60s, leaving the way open for China's hardliners to take control and wreak havoc on a long-suffering nation. Fortunately we then had the pingpong diplomacy of the early '70s -- a clear signal by then-Premier Zhou Enlai of China's desire to try again to open up to the West. This time the opening could not be blocked, despite hardliner objections.

Today it is clear that North Korea also wants to open up. Tentative economic and person-to-person contacts on the Chinese model are the first step. True, the North Korean leader may not be quite of the same ilk as Zhou, or Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev. But all who have met him agree that he is intelligent and that he has a close interest in the outside world.

It would be tragic if the hardliners of both sides were allowed to block him. Can they stop him?

A favorite hawk gambit is vicious attacks on fellow nationals favoring understanding and closer contacts with the other side. We saw it in the U.S. with the McCarthyist attacks on progressives in the 1950s, and in the purging from the U.S. State Department those China specialists opposed to mistaken U.S. policies over China.

We are seeing something very similar today in Japan over North Korea. Rightwing magazines and politicians here have launched ferocious personal attacks against Hitoshi Tanaka, the senior Foreign Ministry official whose contacts with a high-placed North Korean official -- a Mr. X -- led to last year's short-lived breakthrough in relations and to the freeing of five former abductees. Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi has also come under attack for seeming to support Tanaka.

Meanwhile, the same rightwingers continue their ugly attacks on the so-called China School -- Foreign Ministry experts on China who favor better relations with Beijing.

Japan seems determined to slide into the same mishmash of emotional hardline, hawkish, rightwing hatreds and irrationalities that we have had to endure in the West for the past 50 years.

Ban The Bomb used to be a favorite pacifist slogan. It should have been Ban The Hawks. Until the world gets rid of the hawkish mentality, the need for the Bomb as a deterrent will remain indefinitely.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and honorary president of Tama University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at: www.gregoryclark.net


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