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Enduring Results of North Korean Visit Questionable at the Moment

October 04, 2000|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — Next week, for the first time in history, North Korea will come to the White House.

Almost lost amid the recent dramas in the Middle East and Yugoslavia was a terse, late-Friday announcement that Cho Myong Nok, North Korea's second-ranking military official, is about to visit Washington and that President Clinton will receive him.

By all signs, the Clinton administration is preparing to follow up the visit with new overtures to North Korea, such as removing the regime from the list of terrorist nations--an action that would help enable North Korea to obtain international loans.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has let it be known she might visit North Korea soon too. "There may be normalization of diplomatic relations in the works," suggests Joel Wit of the Brookings Institution.

What should Americans think of Clinton's late-term charm offensive with the North Koreans?

We should judge it not as symbolism but by its enduring results. And those, at the moment, are questionable, because it's not clear whether the Clinton administration is willing to address the tough, long-term issues with North Korea.

The Clinton White House will likely portray the North Korean visit as part of a larger pattern of reconciliation, in which the president is reaching out to America's former enemies in Asia--equivalent, in this sense, to Clinton's planned visit to Hanoi next month.

North Korea to the White House in October, Clinton to Vietnam in November. Who knows what December will bring?

In truth, Clinton's new ventures with Vietnam and North Korea aren't much alike.

The significance of Clinton's Vietnam sojourn is almost all symbolic. His trip will merely put the presidential imprimatur on what was negotiated a long time ago. The United States normalized diplomatic relations with Hanoi in 1995; the two governments ironed out a trade agreement over the last two years.

North Korea is different, and that's what makes the upcoming visit so important.

The United States still has no peace treaty with North Korea, only the armistice that ended the Korean War nearly a half-century ago. North Korea's troops are still deployed along the demilitarized zone with the South. It test-fired a new Taepodong missile over Japanese airspace two years ago, spurring calls for American missile-defense programs.

And in contrast to Vietnam, the U.S. diplomacy with North Korea is both active and unsettled. There are plenty of outstanding issues.

Of these, the Clinton administration is likely to address the most immediate one: North Korea's desire to get off the State Department's terrorist list.

North Korea is one of seven nations on the terrorist list this year, along with Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria.

U.S. law requires the United States to oppose loans or aid by international financial institutions--such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the Asian Development Bank--to any country on the list.

In other words, getting off the terrorist list could mean cold cash for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his regime.

In the year since former Defense Secretary William J. Perry visited Pyongyang, North Korea has balked at sending a high-level envoy to Washington, arguing that it should be removed from the terrorist list first.

Thus, the decision to dispatch Cho to Washington represents a retreat by North Korea but maybe not much of one. Chances are the Clinton administration signaled to North Korea it could be removed from the list soon.

No one claims that North Korea is engaging in terrorism right now. The main issue has been whether it will make up for its past support of terrorism--by, for example, turning over the four Japanese Red Army terrorists living in North Korea since the 1970s.

The danger is that the Clinton administration will work out a quick rapprochement with North Korea that ignores complex problems and leaves the next administration with the task of cleaning up the messes.

For example, will the Clinton administration insist that North Korea move its troops back from the DMZ? How can the two countries really move toward peace while North Korea still deploys its forces as if it were preparing for war?

And will Clinton try to persuade North Korea to take some sensible substitute instead of the two light-water nuclear reactors it is now expecting?

The administration offered those reactors six years ago in exchange for a freeze on North Korea's nuclear weapon program. But independent experts say the project will be a costly waste; North Korea doesn't even have a functioning grid to carry electricity.

"From an economic standpoint, building these nuclear reactors is ludicrous," observes Marcus Noland of the Institute for International Economics.

But don't count on such thorny issues being addressed in next week's visit.

North Korea has been a continuing annoyance to the Clinton White House for the last seven years. Now, the outgoing administration is ready for a fleeting, uncharacteristic moment of harmony.

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

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