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California and the West | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

N. Korea Aid Yields Bounty of Threats

September 30, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — This is the story of the millions of dollars President Clinton has just pulled out of his pocket for North Korea, and about the incomprehensible foreign policy that this payment represents.

You probably didn't know Clinton had a few extra million dollars lying around. Most people don't. But in fact, like all American presidents, he has a nice little contingency fund. A 1961 law permits a president to spend up to $50 million a year beyond what Congress has provided.

The money can't go to his personal lawyers. Congress has stipulated that it must be used for purposes of national security. And so Clinton moved Tuesday to use some of this spare change to buy some more fuel oil for the truculent Pyongyang regime.

Administration officials have told Congress that the president has decided to spend as much as $15 million for North Korean fuel oil, beyond the $35 million already authorized by Congress this year. The White House believes the extra money is necessary to preserve the 1994 agreement in which North Korea agreed to stop its nuclear weapons program.

Under that deal, the United States said it would supply North Korea with fuel oil and help it get two new civilian nuclear reactors, if North Korea would freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear program.

To see just how remarkable Clinton's new payment for North Korea is, flash back to 1995, when Warren Christopher, the secretary of State, testified before Congress that the costs to American taxpayers of providing fuel oil for North Korea would be "in the range of $20 million to $30 million a year."

That figure was based on the assumption that the United States would be able to persuade other countries to shoulder some of the burden. But the Clinton administration's efforts to pass the hat around the world fell far short of its original plans. As a result, the administration won permission from Congress to spend $35 million for North Korean fuel oil this year.

Now the administration is saying that even the larger sum won't be enough. Clinton chipped in the extra $15 million just before the current fiscal year ends today, bringing the total to $50 million. And there may be more increases in the works next year.

These fuel-oil shipments are not the only help the administration is providing North Korea these days. Earlier this month, the U.S. approved 300,000 tons of wheat to help feed the North Koreans.

Possibly some of this wheat will be diverted to help feed North Korean troops, many of whom are deployed near the demilitarized zone with South Korea. At a hearing last week, U.S. officials said they had been unable to win permission to conduct unsupervised, unscheduled inspections to find out exactly where in North Korea the American food aid was going.

And what, exactly, has the administration got in return for its munificence? North Korea recently tested a new missile by firing it across Japanese airspace. Over the last year, it has also helped both Pakistan and Iran develop their own new missiles.

North Korea has stopped producing plutonium at the huge nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. But has it frozen its nuclear program? The administration now acknowledges the existence of what it carefully calls a "suspect underground construction," one that could be a new nuclear installation.

At a congressional hearing last week, Charles Kartman, the administration's special envoy for Korean peace talks, was asked whether North Korea had broken the 1994 deal. His answer was a masterpiece of evasion and qualification.

"At the risk of sounding too lawyerly," Kartman replied, " . . . we do not have any information that indicates that they have violated the agreed framework at that site at this time."

You can't really blame Kartman. The Clinton administration has dumped on him and other working-level officials the unenviable task of defending a policy toward North Korea that, on its face, seems indefensible.

Neither Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, with her vaunted communications skills, nor Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who got his job largely because of his ability to deal with a Republican Congress, has appeared at recent public hearings on North Korea policy. The nation's top military leaders haven't testified either.

These officials have no doubt been preoccupied with other foreign-policy problems, such as the Middle East and Kosovo. But that itself is a telling point: The administration is handling North Korea as though it were either too unimportant or too embarrassing for its top officials to discuss in public.

In seeking to justify its policy, the Clinton administration has been resorting to shopworn cliches. "Although it is a difficult task, we are convinced that we can achieve our objectives best by carefully engaging the North Korean regime, not by isolating it," Kartman said last week.

Thus, for the purpose of "engaging" North Korea, the United States now seems to be accepting a situation in which North Korea fires new missiles over Japan and continues to threaten South Korea with military attack, while the U.S. feeds North Korea and supplies it with ever-greater sums of money for energy.

The core of the administration's failure lies in its utter inability to drive a hard, tough deal. If North Korea wants to become a ward of the West, it can stop threatening its neighbors. If not, then it is responsible for its own isolation.

Sometimes, the world's only superpower looks like the world's biggest sucker.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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