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Monday, Sept. 17, 2007

How to downsize Bush's 'axis of evil'

LOS ANGELES — The "axis of evil" has certainly proven one tough triangle with which to tangle. But is it about to be downsized? As defined by U.S. President George Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address, this putative axis triangulates Iraq, Iran and North Korea. But is one of them on the verge of executing a makeover?

The axis has been tougher on the world than vice versa. Iraq is still a mess, though top U.S. generals reported to the American nation last week that the mess there is becoming less. Iran is still marching toward weapons-nuclearization, though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government has slowed that march, which however the Israelis and many others insist is inexorable, deplorable and peace-threatening.

Things, therefore, must be as bleak as Hades if it's a ray of sunshine from North Korea that helps us avoid total despair. But such is the state of international relations that Pyongyang's apparent decision to stick to its atomic-weapons dismantlement pledge has almost put Western diplomats in a wild partying mood.

Wonders, it seems, never cease. For years North Korea consistently insisted no progress was possible unless direct diplomatic conversations with the United States were undertaken. But the Bush administration consistently resisted, on the grounds of not wanting to get its hands morally dirty, even as China created for Washington the white-gloves process of the six-party talks.

Fortunately, that slow-moving, highly ritualized process did lead to direct bilateral exchanges in Geneva, did lead to the current change in climate, and did lead to the recent surprise invitation from Pyongyang to experts from the U.S., China and Russia to survey its nuclear sites.

There are deep waters underneath this developing diplomatic swirl: the prospect of a formal end to the de facto state of war on the Korean Peninsula that has perpetuated a kind of permanent Korean Cold War. This would require a signed peace treaty between North Korea and the United Nations, under whose aegis resistance to the North Korean invasion was organized. (Does anyone hear the name or envision a special role here for Ban Ki Moon, the former South Korean foreign minister who is now secretary general of the U.N.?)

The U.S. government has consistently downplayed political and economic normalization, much less a peace treaty, prior to denuclearization. But a funny thing happened in Sydney at the conclusion of the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting. At a press conference, the president of South Korea sought to push Bush into the deep end of this diplomatic pool — head first!

What was Roh Moo Hyun thinking? Perhaps the Korean leader, coming to the end of his term, was seeking to secure his place in history. Perhaps he was seeking to help his political allies in the coming South Korean elections, and/or perhaps there was some misunderstanding over the official translation of the American president's remarks about North Korea. Whatever, Roh appeared to want to shove Bush into a more publicly optimistic stance — or at least to be "a little bit clearer" — that a signed peace treaty would follow true denuclearization.

To be sure, Roh's push was a rather awkward moment in the annals of public diplomacy. But the South Korean president, who happily fashions himself a kind of self-educated "everyman," is known for his public gaffes as he rocks-and-rolls uncaringly with each one of them. Too bad, though, that Roh didn't go at the issue in a more polite, indeed diplomatic way — explaining, in front of the media, that the Bush administration stands on the edge of a possibly colossal diplomatic triumph.

Clearly, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the normalization of relations with North Korea is nothing to sneeze at and would benefit all concerned, including Japan, whose government is even more skeptical of North Korean intentions than the U.S. president is. Intentions, however, can often be difficult to gauge; whereas, actions can sometimes be monitored. "Trust but verify" said U.S. President Ronald Reagan of agreements with the Soviet Union.

By inviting "tri-national" nuclear-facilities inspectors into the country, North Korea would appear to be waving a white flag — or at least putting on their own white gloves. Yes, their economy is a mess, but it has been worse, and some reforms are making it a little better. Look at it this way: Imagine for a moment that the movement toward normalization on the Korean Peninsula is real, not illusory. Yes, we trust a little, but verify a lot more.

Suppose at some time in 2008 we find North Korea indeed moving in a different direction. Then the Bush doctrine of the triangular axis of evil might have to be downsized by a third. Would that not be a very good thing indeed? Let's focus on a possible positive for once.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author, most recently, of "Confessions of an American Media Man."

Copyright Tom Plate 2007.

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