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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

U.S. Bends Truth Over N. Korea

October 18, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

WASHINGTON — With a single, silly sentence from the White House podium last week, President Clinton's spokesman brought home all the dangers of delusion and moral blindness presented by the administration's current North Korean diplomacy.

Reporters were asking Jake Siewert to explain the discrepancy between the Clinton administration's seeming eagerness to deal with North Korea and its continuing intransigence toward Cuba.

The spokesman pointed out, legitimately, that North Korea represents a threat to American allies, while Cuba does not. He might have stopped there, but he didn't.

"At the same time, North Korea has indicated a willingness to change its regime, to open up," Siewert said, adding: "Castro has not indicated a willingness to change his regime."

That assertion is demonstrably false--and all too revealing of a disturbing habit of mind by the Clinton administration.

For reasons of economic necessity, North Korea has decided to begin to deal with South Korea and the U.S. But nothing in North Korea's actions over the last year has given anyone the slightest reason to think that the nature of the Pyongyang regime is changing. (Indeed Cuba, despite Castro's repression, represents a more open society than does North Korea.)

The Clinton administration's own human rights reports tell the accurate story, which the White House spokesman apparently doesn't know or would rather forget.

This year's report asserts without qualification that North Korea is a "dictatorship," where people simply have no human rights. It says that North Koreans are subject to "rigid controls," that there are "extrajudicial killings and disappearances," that there are "many" political prisoners and that the penal code is "draconian."

Does this mean the Clinton administration should refuse to deal with Kim Jong Il? No. In foreign policy, sometimes you have to do business with evil regimes. After all, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill broke bread with Josef Stalin. Sheer realism has its purposes, within limits.

But the Clinton administration seems unwilling or unable to justify its policies as realism. Instead, it uses a false logic: It tells Americans, wrongly, that if we are dealing with a nasty regime, then it must therefore be in the process of becoming better.

We want China to join the World Trade Organization, for reasons of commerce--and so, presto, the administration claims that joining the WTO will bring political liberalization to China. We're eager for North Korea to halt its missile program--and presto, the White House finds that North Korea is showing a "willingness to change its regime."

The risks that the administration will present a false view of a politically changing North Korea will be compounded if, as appears likely, Clinton visits Pyongyang on his trip to Asia next month.

So far, too much of the administration's secret North Korean diplomacy has been spent negotiating who goes where and who meets with whom.

Clinton's envoy, William J. Perry, was rebuffed when he tried to see Kim Jong Il a year ago. And so when North Korean officials let it be known that National Defense Commission first vice chairman Gen. Cho Myong Nok wanted to be greeted by Clinton in Washington, the administration made an implicit bargain: Cho could see Clinton if Secretary of State Madeleine Albright could meet with Kim on her upcoming visit to Pyongyang.

Albright may finalize a long-stalled deal for the United States and North Korea to open diplomatic liaison offices. That would open the way for Clinton's visit.

And what business will Clinton transact? The main White House objective involves missiles. Pyongyang has stopped claiming that its missiles are nobody's business and has indicated a willingness to negotiate missile issues--which include missile tests, production, deployments and exports.

So Clinton could nail down some new agreement for a permanent freeze on North Korea's missile tests, similar to the one he worked out for its nuclear program in 1994. That will probably leave North Korea free to bargain away later on the right to produce and export missiles, in exchange for future U.S. concessions.

Will such a deal by itself make the Clinton and Albright trips worth it? Not if they do nothing at all to advance the cause of human rights and instead confer legitimacy upon an abysmally bad regime.

There are important, pragmatic human rights steps the administration could seek. "For us, the bottom line is access--that is, opening up North Korea to independent and United Nations human rights monitors," says Mike Jendrejczyk of Human Rights Watch/Asia, a private advocacy group.

There's no sign the administration will do anything along these lines. Instead, advance teams are beginning to lay the groundwork for a surprise pre-Thanksgiving television spectacular: a trip by Clinton from Pyongyang overland through the border village of Panmunjom to Seoul.

In the presidential campaign debates, Vice President Al Gore has been commendably saying that U.S. foreign policy ought to help promote American "values."

But does this administration's concern for democracy and human rights stop in the Balkans? What about North Korea? If the Clinton administration is going to prettify North Korea's ugly dictatorship, it can fairly be accused of having done far more there to betray American values than to promote them.

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