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Monday, Oct. 16, 2006

Expect more shocks from North Korea


LOS ANGELES -- Today's level of anxiety and near-panic in the U.S. news media is amazing. It is almost as if America's leading journalists are thrilled to be writing about something other than Iraq finally. Thank you, Kim Jong Il -- we were all getting rather bored.

And more shocks may be coming, and they may not be far into the future. Should we anticipate nuclear weapons tests by North Korea becoming commonplace? Why not? Having crossed the threshold, there may not be any turning back.

Get a grip, though: Nuclear powers do not necessarily launch nuclear wars. None of the nation-states possessing such arsenals have yet used any, except the United States. And its weapons -- two of them -- were ironically used against an Asian nonnuclear power. This was in 1945, in Asia -- against the Japanese. The North Koreans know this.

Have you seen many stories in the U.S. news media acknowledging the legal right of North Korea to test and possess nuclear weapons? Loathsome as the regime is, North Korea nonetheless is a sovereign state with all atomic rights thereto. It pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty a few years ago and hardly made any secret of its nuclear ambitions. Having announced it was breaking the nuclear glass, subsequent tests should come as anything but a breathtaking surprise.

There is a remote possibility that the clock can be set backward on that. The dispatch of a primo high-level envoy would be worth trying. Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and incoming U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon have already been mentioned as sacrificial diplomats. At this point, perhaps everything and anything is worth throwing at Pyongyang.

The only unacceptable option for the world is panic: We have only to fear the onset of fear itself. With an Asia-based crisis such as the North Korean nuclear program, sometimes Asian values are worth employing. This means patience and persistence, quietude and humility, rather than saber-rattling and blustering.

Time is not on Kim's side. The basic width and breadth of his power is eroding as people starve and Internet information technology dribbles over the borders into the "hermit state." People in North Korea now have a better idea of what life is like outside of their restrictive confines; they increasingly sense that their workers' paradise is anything but Miami Beach on its best day.

I have been saying for months that a quiet coup has taken place inside North Korea. In the ordinary ideology of communist governance, everything is subservient to the party, even the military; but in today's North Korea, Kim is the military and the military is Kim. He and they are the last remaining power center, holed up as if at a Korean Alamo.

And so when the military pushed to fire off a bunch of rocket tests in July, who was Kim to say no? He was them: And so ditto with Monday's apparent nuclear-bomb test -- as small in size as it was. Whatever the military now wants, it gets.

Perhaps for the Bush administration, logic would suggest that the best ploy to play would be the waiting game. Let sanctions serve as a Chinese water-torture exercise on Pyongyang's head. Notch by notch, drip by drip, the regime will be eroded. But for the West as a cultural entity, waiting is not its strong suit. That's the Asian game.

No food or beverage will be removed from the tables of the North Korean elite no matter how tight the sanctions tourniquet. Those who will starve and die, in increasing numbers, will be ordinary Koreans in the north, and the boys in Pyongyang will roll up their limousine curtains and shed not a tear for their countrymen.

That's why the better play is to engineer secret negotiations with a special envoy and Kim himself. But our envoy needs to go in with the firm understanding and complete backing from Washington and Beijing -- not to mention Tokyo -- and bundles of cash topped with other goodies. The world needs to buy the North back from a total plunge into the nuclear brink, to which it will inevitably edge closer and closer should the West seek to isolate it more and more.

The prospect for a negotiated denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is not a wild-eyed impossibility. We need only to return to the agreed declaration of principles of the "six-party talks" in Beijing last year.

On the list was the explicit agreement among the half-dozen nations (which included Pyongyang, of course) on no nukes in North or South Korea: "The six parties unanimously reaffirmed that the goal of the six-party talks is the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner."

The nonnuclear option still remains the best course for the Koreans and the world. It may seem unlikely now, but in retrospect, an international agreement that recognizes North Korean sovereignty, the need for a nuclear-free Peninsula, and the importance of an economically developed North will seem like simplicity itself. And it's hard to see why this could not be achieved before this time next year.

Just consider the alternative.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Copyright 2006 Tom Plate


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