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World Perspective | JIM MANN / INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

N. Korea Must Deliver on Its Half of Bargain Before U.S. Aid Is Dispensed

May 27, 1996|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — In a way, the North Koreans are like the "freemen" in Montana. Maybe they should be called the "un-freemen."

The un-freemen are holed up on their Pyongyang ranch, trying to escape from being called to account for their numerous transgressions. They are surrounded and friendless. Looking on from outside, the Americans, South Koreans and Japanese are wringing their hands, trying to decide how to get them out. Should we cut off the power?

And all the while, from inside, amid an atmosphere of wacky unreality about their future, the un-freemen of North Korea send out grocery lists of their needs: Please send more Uncle Ben's. How about a few cigarettes? Our putative leader, Kim (I'm Still Ill) Jong Il says his supplies of Remy Martin are running a bit low.

The Clinton administration has dispatched yet another emissary, Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), to the Pyongyang ranch. Richardson amounts to our country's unofficial secretary of State for thugs. (Or rather, for other thugs. The official secretary of State, Warren Christopher, has his hands full with Syrian President Hafez Assad.)

In recent years, Richardson has sojourned to Iraq, Myanmar and, on two earlier occasions, North Korea--all places that a top-level American like Christopher could not go without conferring too much official recognition on those governments.

Yet any pretense that Richardson is merely a congressman on a junket, or a diplomatic Lone Ranger, can be easily dispelled. He is accompanied by two officials from the Pentagon and one from the State Department, flying on a U.S. military plane.

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And what is the "unofficial" American message Richardson is carrying to the un-freemen? Come out of your ranch. Join the four-way peace talks--among the two Koreas, the United States and China--that South Korean President Kim Young Sam and President Clinton recently proposed. If you do, you can get food, not only from the United States but from other countries too.

This is the policy question the Clinton administration is quietly trying to work out right now: whether and how much the United States should begin helping North Korea, and what exactly it should ask for in return.

Officially, American policy stands where Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord put it a couple of weeks ago: The United States, which gave North Korea about $2 million in food aid last February, has no plans to provide more of this relief. But the question is "under review."

Behind the scenes, however, the administration is studying the possibility of arranging more food for North Korea within the coming weeks and is even examining whether, much further down the road, it should ease U.S. sanctions in a way that might help the North Korean economy.

The first hints of a new administration policy came in a speech delivered in Seoul two weeks ago by U.S. Ambassador to South Korea James T. Laney. It was called "Beyond Deterrence," and in it Laney suggested that the United States give North Korea what he called "positive inducements to cooperation."

Looked at from a distance, the current situation is bizarre.

North Korea, after all, still has a million-man army, deployed close to the demilitarized zone with South Korea, requiring the presence of 37,000 American troops to help defend the peninsula. The un-freemen still export missiles. They still run a terrorist state.

And yet the un-freemen seek handouts from the people they are threatening. Whatever happened to the late President Kim Il Sung's doctrine of juche (self-reliance)?

The administration's rationale for negotiating with the North Koreans is roughly the same as for dealing with Montana's freemen. The North Koreans are heavily armed; no one wants a blood bath.

However, the credibility of North Korea's threat to resort to military action becomes more questionable month by month. Last week, a North Korean air force pilot became the latest in a series of recent defectors to South Korea. If North Korea resorted to war, would it lose its whole air force?

Does North Korea have enough hidden food stocks, amid its current shortages, to feed an army in the midst of a war? Does North Korea believe that China--whose ever-closer ties with South Korea are one of the most significant trends in Asia these days--would send "volunteers" to help North Korea in the way that it did 45 years ago? The chances are minuscule.

In fact, these days the Clinton administration seems to worry less about the threat of war than of a chaotic collapse, one that could send hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees to South Korea and China, or by sea toward Japan.

So the administration's unstated aim is to produce a "soft landing"--one that might give North Korea enough help to let it keep going for a while rather than risk war or cataclysm. The strategy is defensible but also potentially controversial because it could be argued that the United States shouldn't help perpetuate a regime that has caused so much grief.

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