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Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009

North Korea's way of trying to break the ice

LOS ANGELES — You will never get anything of significance done with North Korea unless you go right to the top. The essence of its political culture is a feral fusion of Asian family values ("father knows best") with rigid communist hierarchy.

At international conferences, midlevel North Korean operatives are usually too scared to negotiate anything other than the hotel bar bill. They fear deviating even one inch from the party line. That line — in tone and in content — is set by one to three or four big tunas in Pyongyang.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton met with Pyongyang's biggest — if aging — tuna last week and got to leave with a prize: two jailed celebrity American journalists. Back in March they had been grabbed by North Korean border guards, taken back to the capital, charged and convicted of violating national-security law, and sentenced to a dozen years of hard labor.

From the Korean cultural perspective, therefore, the two lady journalists — Laura Ling and Euna Lee — became a very nice "gift" indeed that could be presented by Dear Leader Kim Jong Il to an appropriately co-equal American counterpart willing to trek up to the northern hermit kingdom to receive it.

Truth be told, the journalists in jail were of no use at all to the North Koreans. To put the matter crudely, they were nothing more than two more mouths to feed. The decision to allow them to return home thus would have been made long before Clinton's clandestine trip to Pyongyang. It was just a question of the modalities and personalities of the handover.

No offense is intended to the two journalists (one, in fact, was a former college student of mine, and an inspiring one at that), but Clinton's trip was not primarily about them. It was mainly about the future of the U.S.-North Korean bilateral relationship.

The North Koreans, though not overly skilled in the charm-offensive department, have been looking for a way to resume talks leading to diplomatic normalization with the United States. But their odd manner of proceeding always seems to involve diplomatic insults and taking two steps back before taking another one forward — a difficult and indeed mathematically illogical way to establish forward progress.

As ever, the key would be for the top tier of the country to deal with the top tier of the U.S. As this column wrote in December, before the journalists' arrests, "In a few months, former U.S. president — Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton — may be asked to travel to North Korea in pursuit of military denuclearization. This is the only way the deal will ever get done."

Sure, the North Koreans have a reputation for double-dealing — and, sometimes, for not dealing with a full deck of cards. But in another respect their behavior is rigidly logical and predictable: They like to deal their cards from the top of the deck.

What this means is that the release of Ling and Lee will not prove the end of the game but merely a preliminary. Having presented their gift to the American VIP, they now will wish for the Americans to continue the bilateral dialogue in return.

Recently the Obama administration reacted coldly to that idea, and indicated a preference for resuming the six-party talks hosted in Beijing by China. These talks appeared to produce a breakthrough several years ago before unraveling. Why? They violated the cardinal principle of not engendering true give-and-take negotiations at the highest level.

It makes more sense for the Obama administration to authorize Bill Clinton to return to Pyongyang. In truth, the former president feels he has major unfinished business there. Just before he left office more than eight years ago, he and his top people believed that a peace agreement with North Korea was a hair-length away. His successor scotched the deal and wanted no part of it. So the Obama administration can now go back to the future and let Clinton nail it all down.

It would be an unprecedented sight were Bill Clinton's wife to be included in the U.S. delegation, of course. But difficult times sometimes spawn peculiar arrangements. I would also lobby to have Japanese interests represented in Pyongyang too: Why not have former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi involved as well? He too visited Pyongyang and brought some hostages home.

As for vital South Korean interests, why not ask U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to participate? He is a former South Korean foreign minister.

The more the merrier; but unless there are only top people at the table in North Korea, nothing will get done. Surely everyone understands this by now?

Syndicated columnist and former university professor Tom Plate is writing a book on Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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