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Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009

Another twist and shout from North Korea

LOS ANGELES — Like the baby that hurls its rattle out of the crib to grab attention, North Korea has never been known for a subtle diplomatic style. Right now, though, it appears to have abandoned, temporarily at least, the crude infantile approach for a more adult turn.

Yes, once again, we are being manipulated. But this particular manipulation might just lead to something more hopeful than the usual. The latest twist in the ditsy diplomatic schizophrenia known as the foreign policy of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has come in the form of an official apology.

It's hard to believe but the North Korean government actually said it was sorry about something — and said it very much in public. The apology came in the wake of a presumably inadvertent flood-control error. Water from a North Korean dam was released last month that flowed downstream like a mini-tsunami. In a flash it wound up drowning a half-dozen South Koreans along the Imjin River.

After weeks of obnoxious silence, Pyongyang officially decided to say it was sorry. "It was regrettable that unintended human tragedies occurred," said an official of the Communist government.

North Korea has rarely managed to convert stupidity into opportunity. This time may prove the exception. This otherwise inept government may realize its tantrum routines have crossed the checkpoint of diminishing returns.

Note that just a few months ago, it played adult nice-nice with former President Bill Clinton and allowed him to leave with two scared and exhausted American journalists in tow. They had been jailed for months. Their release made everyone happy.

So did the apology. But note that the unusual (if tepid) expression of regret followed shortly upon the departure of China's soft-spoken but powerful Wen Jiabao. This was no coincidence. The Chinese premier had spent a few days sitting down, drinking lots of tea and having long chats with Maximum Leader Kim Jong Il, among others. The two sides had plenty to talk about.

For its part, Beijing is keen to restart the stalled six-party talks that it founded. They involve, besides itself and the two Koreas, Moscow and Tokyo, as well as Washington.

North Korea can go only so far in annoying its historic ally. The Chinese, wisely, sent the wily Wen, who is Beijing's No. 2. They know better than to bother expecting significant action from Pyongyang unless the conversation is held at the highest level.

This — let us recall — was the secret of the success of Bill Clinton's Pyongyang mission. Had the U.S. not sent someone as prominent as a former U.S. president to negotiate for the release of the two journalists, the happy outcome may never have come to pass. Pyongyang was pleased with the visit and would love to have more — with either of the two Clintons, or with both, for that matter.

North Korea desperately wants to hook up with Washington. Things cannot go on like this much longer. It aims for official diplomatic respect (formal recognition) and a fistful of dollars as part of a developing "Grand Bargain," as we have called it, with the U.S.

Pyongyang would prefer to negotiate solely with Washington, but America's two main allies in East Asia have every good reason to be kept in the loop. Japan has serious, domestically corrosive issues with North Korea, and of course South Korea has to share the same tense peninsula. Both repeatedly remind American diplomats Stephen Bosworth and Kurt Campbell that they have major interests in the negotiations, too.

To be sure, Seoul and Tokyo should not be taken for granted in the slightest way. Japan, with its new government, is preparing to reduce its contribution to the effort in Afghanistan. This is a potential rebuff to the U.S. South Korea just signed a trade-opening agreement with the European Union that could be viewed also as a rebuke to the U.S. Congress for not yet passing the one negotiated by Seoul and Washington back in 2007.

A touch of forward progress may have come from Seoul. In a recent speech in New York sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, the Korea Society and the Asia Society, President Lee Myung Bak proposed the long-awaited Grand Bargain in explicit terms: If North Korea were to execute irreversible denuclearization, it would receive a rock-solid security guarantee against any military hostility and huge dollops of international aid.

If such a Grand Bargain materializes, North Korea would have to be infantile to reject it. But who knows what twist or turn is next?

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate is writing a series of books on major Asian political figures. An archive of recent columns is at: www.pacificperspectives.blogspot.com. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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