The White House and Congress are similar in one respect: Neither really understands North Korea's intentions. As hard as Asst. Secretary Christopher Hill, the U.S. chief negotiator, tries to explain what is going on, he is repeatedly questioned as to the "motivation" of the Kim Jong-il government.
How often does Ambassador Hill have to tell the story? The North Koreans' motivation is to use negotiation as a form of warfare and in doing so perpetuate its conflict with the United States that it began in 1950. From the very first armistice talks with Admiral C. Turner Joy at Panmunjon, the Korean Communists have pursued negotiations as a device in their continuing war against the Americans.
Again and again Admiral Joy's vexed judgment has proved correct. Writing about his North Korean counterparts, he noted they "...are not embarrassed in the least to deny an agreement already reached. [They] simply state your interpretation is an incorrect one."
As if he just made a brilliant discovery, Jay Lefkowitz, the White House special envoy for human rights in North Korea, said in February 2008: "North Korea is not serious about disarming in a timely manner." Oh, really -- and what was your first clue?
Sen. John Kerry, in another masterful display of his foreign affairs acumen during a Senate hearing, asked Christopher Hill if he believed Pyongyang was stalling for time until the Bush administration was replaced. Somehow keeping a straight face, Hill replied he doubted that was the case.
NORTH KOREA ON FEBRUARY 13, 2007, had agreed to shut down its 50 megawatt reactor at Yongbyon and then provide a complete list of its nuclear weapons, including a hidden uranium enrichment project. This accord was reached by the six-party group of Northeast Asia (China, Russia, Japan South Korea, United States and North Korea). In turn Pyongyang would receive massive shipments of fuel oil and some basic food supplies. Talks on lifting sanctions would begin, and work would start on a permanent peace mechanism to replace the armistice of 1953.
The North Koreans immediately after signing on to this agreement threw in a new element insisting on the return of $25 million blocked in a Macao bank. While that was being sorted out, Pyongyang decided to launch a few missiles into the Sea of Japan. Apparently Kim Jong-il wanted to be sure the negotiating parties were still paying attention. And so things have progressed.
According to Ambassador Hill, removing the spent fuel from the Yongbyon reactor has slowed to a crawl (one shift a day working instead of the original three). The U.S. and other countries have retaliated by reducing the continuing oil delivery to 200,000 tons -- quite a bit less than the eventual 1 million tons originally envisaged. Just a few weeks ago Washington announced the Israelis had bombed a secret North Korean-aided Syrian nuclear plant in September last year. So much for the people in Pyongyang being motivated to stay out of the proliferation business.
Washington decided to play down the North Korean involvement in possible Syrian nuclear weapon development as a result of what Hill referred to as Pyongyang's "acknowledgement of U.S. concerns" over the Syrian affair. This was worked out in what was termed a "side agreement."
The Democrats have applauded getting the North Korean talks "back on track." The White House feels it has done the best it can, even while congressional conservatives are jumping about like Tennessee Williams' "cats on a hot tin roof."
THE UNITED STATES does not appear to be ready to militarily interdict Iranian nuclear weapon development and the United Nations continues its waffling on the subject. The North Koreans view the international atmosphere therefore as conducive to their continued intransigence and are operating accordingly.
To answer John Kerry's question: The American elections are best waited out by Pyongyang. From the North Koreans' standpoint there is always a chance the Democrats will win, and they see their old friend Bill Richardson in an Obama administration as its ace in the hole. That Hillary would cut his throat before appointing him to anything is perhaps an American political subtlety they might not have considered. Capt. John S. McCain USN, Ret. is their nightmare scenario.
As long as the North Korean government is willing to follow its path of self-destruction under the guise of war-by-other-means, America and the rest of the world will have to accept cataclysmic danger in Northeast Asia as a norm. Pyongyang does, and it figures everyone else should, too. Time, the North Koreans believe, is on their side -- and their negotiating technique makes full use of their willingness to accept the pain involved.
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