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Saturday, May 14, 2005

How the U.S. courts a diplomatic fiasco


LOS ANGELES -- The government of North Korea is difficult to deal with, no matter who you are. Just ask China's leaders. After all, they are Pyongyang's closest ally and yet they probably find dealing with leader Kim Jong Il not a whole lot more fun than their testy cross-strait exchanges with Taiwan's feisty president.

An exaggeration? Perhaps, but not categorically so. That's why Chinese President Hu Jintao is expected, according to recent reports, to travel to North Korea soon to see if he can sort out a few issues with his North Korean buddies. Presumably, one issue will be the North's policy of no longer showing up for the six-party talks in Beijing, talks that the Chinese government created, organized and hosted for three whole sessions.

It would be rather unfriendly of Pyongyang to deflect a very warm invitation from its only real big-time friend in the world, would it not?

At least the Hu government is making an effort and has not yet been totally embarrassed by North Korea. But the same cannot be said of the Bush administration. So far, this government -- the one that opted to invade a Muslim-Arab country but evidently prefers to negotiate with Stalinists -- has been outmaneuvered virtually most of the way.

The result is that North Korea recently test-fired yet another missile and may have on hand as many as a half dozen or more nukes. Then again, maybe it doesn't have any nukes at all and the missile test was just part of its nerve-rattling public show, as is the mysterious construction site that has caught the eye of our spy satellites: Is it for a new missile launch or for an underground nuclear test? The plain truth is that the United States, its extensive and expensive electronic intelligence apparatus notwithstanding, simply isn't sure.

This is why Princeton or Harvard, in its justly famed public-policy schools, needs to launch a new course for its students titled something like "How to Take the United States for a Total Ride." And perhaps the Kim of the North would volunteer to teach it in the States? That would be something.

It would also be something if State Department official John R. Bolton were to attend that course, although the evidence mounting at the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings over his suitability to be the next American ambassador to the United Nations suggests that listening to others isn't exactly his most prominent character trait.

Reflecting much of the attitude of the Bush administration during most of its first four-year term, Bolton apparently makes up his own mind on major issues without bothering to carefully weigh available evidence, and tends to seek to silence subordinates so that he won't have to hear anything in private he disagrees with or see anything in the public media that he finds disagreeable. All the while he says whatever the heck he wants in public.

Such intemperate unruliness reportedly inspired his betters in the State Department a few years ago to all but order the strong-willed Bolton not to make any speeches or give any testimony unless every single word, phrase and inflection had received prior approval. In effect, Bolton was being asked to be a team player.

But that is also not one of his major strengths -- and this takes us back to the North Korean standoff. In the summer of 2003, Bolton delivered a speech about this admittedly difficult country to an audience of mainly South Koreans at the Seoul Hilton. The address reprised the hoary "evil empire" rhetoric then in fashion, and it burned not only North Korean ears but South Korean ones as well. At a time when everyone was searching for a diplomatic way out of the nuclear impasse, here was a top State Department official lobbing verbal grenades north.

It turns out that the contents were quite upsetting to the U.S. ambassador stationed in South Korea, Thomas Hubbard, one of the hardest working and thoroughly respected diplomats America has ever turned out. The otherwise pleasant Hubbard asked Bolton to tone down his speech, noting that phrases like "tyrannical dictator" (re: Kim) and "hellish nightmare" (re: the country) would not exactly help China jump-start the six-party talks by charming Pyongyang into participation.

Indeed, the speech did not. And so in its time-honored, inimitable, utterly alluring manner, the North Korean government responded to Bolton by calling him "human scum" and complaining to Beijing that -- you see, boss! -- America will not negotiate in good faith and indeed was envisioning military action, thus forcing North Korea to build up its deterrent.

This was the amateur-hour Bush administration performing at its worst. Now the world can only hope that China's President Hu will save the diplomatic day. There is perhaps no more telling and damning comment regarding American diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula than the observation that it appears to have left it all to China to sort out a major mess and save a fragile peace.

University of California-Los Angeles professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy and the director of UCLA's Media Center. Copyright Tom Plate 2005


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