Thursday, October 12, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (10/12/06)


Dashiell Hammett's now-classic 1929 mystery novel The Maltese Falcon and fledgling director John Huston's 1941 film feature a marvelous exchange between two principal characters: the sinister fat man, Casper Gutman, played by Sydney Greenstreet, and detective Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart. They are about to talk about the elusive "black bird."

Gutman: You're a close-mouthed man?
Spade: [shakes his head] No, I like to talk.
Gutman: Better and better! I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking's something you can't do judiciously unless you keep in practice. [sits back] Now, sir, we'll talk if you like. And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk.

Would that President George W. Bush were a man who likes to talk to a man that likes to talk. At a time when the North Koreans were practically begging for discussions, and when their journey down the dangerous nuclear path could have been brought to a halt or reversed, he refused to talk to them. The Bush White House has consistently scorned diplomacy, regarding it as a sign of weakness. When retired Gen. Colin Powell, a few months into his service as Bush's secretary of state, announced that he would pick up where President Clinton left off in discussions with North Korea that had frozen plutonium production and missile testing for years, Bush quickly rebuked him and vetoed that course. He insisted that any negotiations by his administration would have "a different tone" from those of the Clinton administration. Instead of negotiating, the Bush administration has consistently favored bluster, empty threats and tough talk.

At the very moment George W. Bush took the oath of office as president in January 2001, North Korea's nuclear reactor had been frozen for seven years under a 1994 agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration. In fact, toward the end of Bill Clinton's term, U.S. officials were so sure they were close to agreement that Clinton considered emulating Richard Nixon's trip to Beijing by becoming the first American president to visit Pyongyang. Hard-line conservatives had long objected to the deal that froze North Korea's nuclear program, which had been given the unwieldy name of "Agreed Framework." Ironically, their resistance stemmed largely from its provision for the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors that were actually to be financed not by the United States but by Japan and South Korea.

Determined to kill the Agreed Framework, hard-liners in the newly elected Bush administration looked for an excuse to scrap it. They found one when U.S. intelligence discovered a secret North Korean program to enrich uranium. After confronting Pyongyang with the evidence, we cut off delivery of the diesel oil promised under the Agreed Framework. North Korea responded by ordering international inspectors to leave the country, and restarted its nuclear reactor. In order to obtain plutonium for nuclear weapons, they began reprocessing the 8,000 spent fuel rods stored in a holding pool that had been under the control of the evicted inspectors.

The following year in the 2002 State of the Union address came the president's infamous blanket labeling of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the "axis of evil"--a speechwriter's three-nation Frankenstein creation. "The U.S. will not permit the world's most destructive regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," he promised. The president next added insult to injury with his now-famous intemperate remark to Bob Woodward, then researching his book Bush at War: "I loathe Kim Jong-II," and his description of North Korea's pudgy ruler as a "pygmy" (he is only an inch taller than five feet) and a "spoiled child." Tough talk and personal insult may play well in American politics but indiscreet, undiplomatic cowboy language is especially frowned upon in Asia, where such words are considered pointedly rude, unseemly and threatening.

Unlike the Clinton administration, which had stated in no uncertain terms that it would attack if North Korea attempted to reprocess the plutonium rods, the Bush administration left the consequences of such action purposely vague to keep Pyongyang in the dark about consequences. They also wasted time in trying to include neighboring nations, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, in meetings. For its part, North Korea insisted that it wanted to talk only with the United States. Following President Bush's reelection in 2004, the administration finally hammered out a "statement of principles" that included economic assistance, security guarantees and normalization of relations with the U.S. In return, North Korea would agree to abandon its nuclear program. The new policy also held out the hope that Pyongyang would get the light-water reactors originally promised under Clinton's Agreed Framework.

Like a sleight-of-hand magician, the Bush administration has kept the country's attention focused on Iraq in a calculated attempt to avoid close scrutiny of its lack of a lucid policy toward North Korea and Iran, military or otherwise. Now the chickens have come home to roost, and the blame game begins. This country has known for more than fifteen years that North Korea has been separating plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel for possible use in a nuclear weapon. It should not have come as a surprise that North Korean scientists would be able to test a nuclear device. George W. Bush's ill-defined strategy for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is now completely in disarray. North Korea has demonstrated that they have created a device that can implode, however imperfectly, and compress a quantity of plutonium into a critical mass, creating a nuclear explosion. Historically, North Korea has now become the ninth nation to test a nuclear weapon.

Responding to last Sunday's event, President Bush focused on the dangers stemming from a spread of nuclear technology. After a hurried phone call to the leaders of China, South Korea, Russia and Japan, he said, "Once again, North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond." Criticizing North Korea for passing missile technology to Syria and Iran, he called the Pyongyang regime "one of the world's leading proliferators." The U.N. Security Council also quickly denounced the North Korean action and began work on a U.S.-sponsored resolution punishing North Korea for violating a moratorium on nuclear testing.

The U.S. proposal also would authorize international inspection of all cargoes moving in and out of the country to prevent Pyongyang from selling nuclear technology to other nations or to terrorist groups. The latter will undoubtedly be a hard sell. China and Russia, until recently North Korea's only friends, are now making noises that indicate a willingness to join in sanctions of some kind. China, which supplies more than 70 percent of North Korea's fuel and 40 percent of its food is deathly afraid of punishing impoverished North Korea so severely that its rickety economy collapses. Already victims of periodic, almost endless famine, its starving population could stream into China in the event of North Korea's complete breakdown and overwhelm the border provinces of Jilin and Liaoning.
There is, of course, more than enough blame to go around and be shared by three major international blunderers who contributed to today's stalemate: George W. Bush, who refused to negotiate with the North Koreans; Chinese President Hu Jintao, who has long avoided a direct confrontation with his immediate neighbor; and the third player in this high-stakes game, Kim Jong-Il, so cut off from reality he had convinced himself that Washington would welcome negotiations.


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