Despite bombast, N. Korea throws low-key 55th anniversary party

Thursday, September 18, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea The way some South Korean newspapers talked of North Korean plans for its 55th anniversary, one would have thought they had their own correspondents in Pyongyang.

There was no doubt, according to reports widely circulated here, that North Korea would display a new missile at its September 9 parade. North Korea might even choose the anniversary of the founding of the communist government to conduct another missile test, its first since it fired one over Japan in August 1998.

Another test, the newspapers said, would be the perfect way for the North to demonstrate its defiance of the United States and Japan -- two nations most alarmed by the specter of North Korean weapons of mass destruction and its ability to deliver them on long-range warheads.

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The U.S. issued veiled warnings on the need for a response to any such test. South Korea's foreign minister, Yoon Young Kwan, returning from talks in Washington with Secretary of State Colin Powell, said a missile test, or even particularly nasty rhetoric, could have a negative effect on the next round of multilateral talks.

But after all the advance hype, Pyongyang's celebration was embarrassingly low key -- embarrassing, that is, to the journalists who had forecast escalation of the nuclear crisis that has hung over the Korean peninsula for more than a year.

What could have been more humdrum than a march-by of 10,000 soldiers under the gaze of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il, who stuck to his long-established custom of saying nothing? Not only were there no new missiles on display, there was hardly any heavy armor. It was up to a senior military aide to read a statement that added nothing to the rhetoric that has become a staple of editorial bombast. North Korea, he said, had every right to produce and test nuclear weapons.

Whether North Korea planned to cross the red line marked by Washington and stage a nuclear test was not addressed. The betting in Seoul was that North Korea had no intention of going beyond previous statements, since it hoped to wangle U.S. acquiescence to a new deal. Under that scenario, a U.S.-led consortium would drastically raise the aid stakes while the North made a show of promising halt its nuclear program.

Oh yes, North Korea would continue to demand a non-aggression pact, the kind of agreement that U.S. officials have long been saying was impossible. But it would settle for a face-saving "guarantee" of security despite the presence of 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and periodic war games staged to keep them in fighting trim.

The reluctance of North Korea to set off alarm bells in Washington and Tokyo by an unseemly show of new military prowess was by no means a sign that the nuclear crisis was about to go away. In fact, the first round of six-sided multilateral talks, staged in Beijing in August, went so badly that some observers concluded the crisis had worsened.

North Korea contributed to the confusion by declaring the talks had been useless. Pyongyang announced there was no point in meeting again and that membership in the club of nuclear powers was inevitable. While providing colorful quotes, the torrent of rhetoric from Pyongyang was basically another toss of the dice in Asia's oldest established permanent floating bargaining game. What if the Pyongyang propaganda machine churned out a statement and nobody cared?

While the effusions from the North were duly reported, nobody in Seoul, Washington, Beijing or Tokyo seemed ready to take them at face value. The betting was that North Korea would be back at the table, ready to obfuscate and stonewall but still engage in the talks that all sides agreed were preferable to serious saber-rattling, much less armed conflict.

Both North Korea and China appear willing to meet again late this year. They will surely restate previous positions but there are signs that the rhetoric may be weakening.

Washington has reported a noticeable slowdown in activity at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex, indicating that North Korean technicians may be cooling it even if they are not returning the spent fuel rods to the cooling pond.

The latest reports indicate that 150,000 Chinese troops have been deployed on the Chinese side of the border between the two countries. They are not to back up North Korean forces in case of a war but to protect China from North Korean soldiers who have been staging occasional raids in search of North Korean refugees.

The United States has no stomach for a conflict that might necessitate drafting young Americans into the military for the first time since the final stages of the Vietnam War. Never did Winston Churchill's dictum, "better to jaw-jaw than to war-war," appear more relevant. Coming up on a presidential election year, the best strategy for the Bush administration for dealing with the Korean crisis would be to tread water, show up at talks, appear resolute but withhold real threats.

Critics might accuse the Bush administration of having no clear policy toward North Korea. The policy, however, was one of compromise for the sake of domestic politics. North Korea would remain a member of the "axis of evil," as President Bush put it in his first inaugural address in January 2001, but he is not likely to use such language again.

North Korea could hardly afford to risk a second Korean War while its economy was in a state of collapse and China is completely opposed to war while pursuing strong economic relations with South Korea, not to mention the United States and Japan.

Similarly Washington could not risk a war that would destabilize the electorate, jeopardize the economy, put the country on a serious war footing, and court disaster at the polls a year hence.

If President Bush and Kim Jong Il have anything in common, it is their desire to cling to power and their fear that war in Korea could bring down both their governments at the hands of angry foes at home and abroad.

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