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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why isolate a global pariah even further?


LOS ANGELES — On the question of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, better known as (a) North Korea, (b) notorious charter member of former U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" and (c) pain-in-the-neck threat to world peace and stability, here are a few humble observations in light of the fact that, basically, no one really knows what to do about North Korea, including China:

• First, you do NOT need to scramble to the telephone to get the local contractor to sink that bomb shelter into your backyard — not just yet, anyway. In its current state of evolution, North Korea is still far from being a serious world-threatening nuclear power.

It is true, the trend lines are ominous: In recent days this much unloved regime has test-fired several missiles and appears to have detonated yet another underground nuclear explosion of unclear size and uncertain sophistication. Even so, this all amounts to a mean flurry of activity from a regime claiming the adherence of some 23 million residents — almost every last one being ethnic Korean and too many being mainly hungry.

• Second, you would think that China, the originator of the six-party talks (aimed at North Korean nuclear disarmament and begun in 2003) would be embarrassed by the latest morose turn of events. But China, Pyongyang's longtime ally, is not totally hapless. All along, it has said the North Korea is such an enfant terrible that even China cannot really control it. And Beijing's greatest fear is not the missiles but the potentially massive migrant population if North Korea collapses. China prefers the company of secure, sealed, unthreatening buffer states. Given its common border with North Korea, it is much opposed to instability, whatever the nature of that regime.

• Third, from the United Nations and elsewhere, you will hear calls for further isolation in retaliation for the North's geopolitical juvenile delinquency. When you hear this, take a deep meditative breath and down a cup of strong tea (or, perhaps, high-quality soju). North Korea comprises the top half of a peninsula that has long behaved like an island unto itself.

Calls from the West to isolate it further are like asking to further isolate the planet Pluto from Uranus. What's the point? Besides, isolation as a policy doesn't work, if what you want is regime amelioration or even change.

• Fourth, if it is outright regime change you prefer, consider trying something different. Consider aggressive, near-reckless engagement. What is there to lose? Better to execute an approach favored by the bold campaigner Barack Obama — not the waffling President Obama — and run circles around the North Koreans with an embarrassment of recognition and riches: Drop the embargo, establish a U.S. Embassy in Pyongyang (we have no official representation there now), fatten the regime up with aid, accumulate leverage, change the behavior, establish regional peace. Try to be subtle, indirect and smart for once.

• Fifth, we don't do that and instead we get a probably a destabilizing regional arms race with a trigger-happy Tokyo. For it is hard to believe that the Japanese will sit tight with Pyongyang on a missile-test spree. For Japan, a North Korea in the midst of a leadership succession is far more the enemy than China and, in case we haven't noticed, the politics in Tokyo these days is volatile. The government is unstable and the opposition under reorganization. So Pyongyang is to Tokyo what Tehran is to Tel Aviv: a constant temptation to launch a pre-emptive strike.

• Sixth, consider the Peninsula's economic gem: South Korea. Politically, it's a mess too. Just the other day its former populist president jumped off a mountain to his death, and the current, conservative one is tripping down in the polls. In June, Obama is to meet with him at the White House. This is where the administration, which has tried to put the Korean problem on the back burner, needs to realize that trying to do more blustery Bush stuff — more isolation and threats — didn't work over the last eight years and won't ever work with this particular regime. Diplomatic recognition does not mean a nation's seal of approval. Washington conducts daily civilized diplomatic relations even with regimes that are anti-democratic, anti-woman and coddling of extremists.

So we hold our nose as we go about our diplomatic duties. But in North Korea, Swiss and Swiss diplomats now conduct America's business. This is a Kafkaesque absurdity. You propose to change North Korea by treating it like Pluto?

Go ahead and try it if you like. But Pluto's not going to alter its orbit unless a very large mass closes in on it steadily and carefully. The U.S. needs to get closer to Pluto fast. It is that simple.

Syndicated columnist and journalist Tom Plate, after 14 years of university teaching, is writing two books on Asia. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center


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