Commentary: North Korea: Why Diplomacy Is Bush's Only Weapon

The hardliners vs. the pragmatists. Those battle lines have been drawn from Day One of the Bush Administration. Representing the hardliners is Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a man who scorned alliances and the rhetoric of arms-control treaties. For the pragmatists: Colin Powell's State Dept., a collection of career diplomats steeped in the craft of consensus-building.

Nowhere has the clout of Rumsfeld & Co. been felt more keenly than in Washington's handling of North Korea. The hardliners have pushed a policy of isolating Pyongyang, a junior member of the Axis of Evil, and openly rebuking South Korea for getting too close to its erstwhile enemy. Now, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il has admitted what the hardliners long suspected, that the North has an active program to develop nuclear weapons. What's more, Kim hasn't even apologized for his nefarious act.

And yet for all this provocation, an amazing thing seems to be happening. In the case of Kim and his bomb, the pragmatists are getting the upper hand in the White House. Under their influence, President George W. Bush is sounding downright conciliatory toward the oddball dictator. What this amounts to is a test case: Which works better--the politics of global confrontation or the dance of traditional diplomacy?

The choreography is intricate. Attacking the North and destroying its weapons program simply isn't an option. Such a conflict would have a disastrous impact, since Kim would probably unleash a killer wave of conventional weaponry into South Korea and launch missiles into Japan. Thus, the only way to deal with North Korea is through sophisticated diplomacy. That means the Administration must use the tools it has often derided--coalitions, arms-control accords, weapons inspections.

The key to the new U.S. policy toward North Korea: Get your friends to do the heavy lifting. Washington is pressing Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and Moscow to lean on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. wants these countries "to convince the North Koreans they would pay too heavy a price" in terms of economic aid and political support if they continue their drive to join the nuclear club, says a senior Administration official. Bush will push this case when he meets with the leaders of South Korea, Japan, and Russia at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Mexico on Oct. 26. Bush will also hash out this strategy with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Crawford, Tex., on Oct. 25.

The challenge for the pragmatists won't end at APEC, though. Pyongyang's neighbors are making it clear that they may not bow completely to Bush's wishes. In 1994, the U.S., Seoul, Tokyo, and Pyongyang agreed that the North would halt its plutonium-based nuclear-weapons program in return for oil and the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors. Given Pyongyang's revelation, some Administration officials now want to kill the agreement.

But South Korea and Japan disagree. Seoul has pursued a policy of engagement with the North for nearly five years, and Tokyo is on the verge of resuming talks to normalize ties. In a meeting in Seoul on Oct. 21, South Korean and Japanese officials agreed that the 1994 pact is vital to stopping the North's nukes. For starters, the two countries have invested nearly $1 billion to pay for building a quarter of the project.

Maybe the pragmatists can find a way out of this impasse by getting Pyongyang to agree to arms inspections. For that to happen, the U.S. will have to break down and open a real dialogue with the North. What would really help is if Bush assured Pyongyang that the U.S. does not intend to invade the North.

Impossible for Washington's hardliners to swallow? Maybe not. Bush took a tiny step toward reassurance on Oct. 21, when he said the crisis can be solved "peacefully." Soft rhetoric, alliance building, going halfway--this White House may yet be more flexible than anyone ever imagined.

By Stan Crock

With Moon Ihlwan in Seoul

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