Commentary Magazine


Topic: South Korean government

The Koreas: Sanctions Effectiveness Watch

The most informative development in the Korean ship-sinking case this week is the silence of China on the matter, something South Korea’s press has addressed in pointed fashion. The Chinese announced on the 19th, moreover, that their ambassador would send a deputy to Thursday’s high-level diplomatic briefing from the South Korean government rather than attending it himself. Editorial staffs in Seoul interpret this as de facto support for North Korea’s position in the confrontation. They have reason to.

In the month before the sinking of South Korean navy corvette Cheonan (on March 26), North Korea extended to 2028 China’s lease on the eastern port of Rajin, which sits on the Sea of Japan. China is modernizing the port extensively for commercial use; Japan and South Korea have the obvious concern that China might begin sending warships there as well. In the month after Cheonans sinking, North Korea switched partners in its flagship tourism venture from South Korea to China. China’s tourists lost no time in taking advantage of that opportunity: the first tourist train from China entered North Korea on April 24. Tourism is a latecomer to the burgeoning trade between China and North Korea, which reportedly hit an all-time high in the first two months of 2010.

China’s proprietary relations with North Korea face an aggressive rival in Russia, which obtained a new 50-year lease on the Rajin port in March and plans to connect the port to its eastern railway system. Maintaining China’s position as Pyongyang’s principal patron is high on Beijing’s priority list, which explains why the Chinese welcomed a rare visit from Kim Jong-Il in early May and allowed North Korea to capitalize on that trip with its first-ever national display at the World Expo in Shanghai. (The chirpy cluelessness of MSNBC’s coverage here is priceless.) Neither the Cheonan incident nor reports in April that Pyongyang is planning a third nuclear test threw a damper on the fraternal amity blossoming in Northeast Asia.

The sense among China’s leaders that they have the latitude to display their true intentions in Korea has grown markedly in the last year. It was never accurate to perceive China as a like-minded ally of the U.S. in the Six-Party talks but, as late as April 2009, Beijing was still making a show of acting from common interests. That it no longer does can be attributed largely to the passivity and incoherence of the Obama administration. The administration’s only serious diplomatic response during the tense period after Cheonan’s sinking was to offer food aid to North Korea if it would rejoin the Six-Party talks.

But China has other examples to draw from as well, such as Obama’s unrealistic handling of Iran. The parallels between the Iran and Korea situations include, of course, multiple rounds of toothless international sanctions and U.S. bluster unsupported by any effective action. In the case of the Cheonan sinking, they also include a very specific analogue: the North Korean naval weapons involved. The analytical team’s finding is that North Korea used a Yono-class “midget” submarine to launch a former-Soviet-style 21-inch torpedo — the world’s most common type — at the South Korean corvette. Iran has produced seven Yono-design hulls as its Ghadir class since 2007, has fitted them to launch 21-inch torpedoes, and began adding them to the fleet in 2009. Iran, like North Korea, has been under UN sanctions throughout that period.

The most informative development in the Korean ship-sinking case this week is the silence of China on the matter, something South Korea’s press has addressed in pointed fashion. The Chinese announced on the 19th, moreover, that their ambassador would send a deputy to Thursday’s high-level diplomatic briefing from the South Korean government rather than attending it himself. Editorial staffs in Seoul interpret this as de facto support for North Korea’s position in the confrontation. They have reason to.

In the month before the sinking of South Korean navy corvette Cheonan (on March 26), North Korea extended to 2028 China’s lease on the eastern port of Rajin, which sits on the Sea of Japan. China is modernizing the port extensively for commercial use; Japan and South Korea have the obvious concern that China might begin sending warships there as well. In the month after Cheonans sinking, North Korea switched partners in its flagship tourism venture from South Korea to China. China’s tourists lost no time in taking advantage of that opportunity: the first tourist train from China entered North Korea on April 24. Tourism is a latecomer to the burgeoning trade between China and North Korea, which reportedly hit an all-time high in the first two months of 2010.

China’s proprietary relations with North Korea face an aggressive rival in Russia, which obtained a new 50-year lease on the Rajin port in March and plans to connect the port to its eastern railway system. Maintaining China’s position as Pyongyang’s principal patron is high on Beijing’s priority list, which explains why the Chinese welcomed a rare visit from Kim Jong-Il in early May and allowed North Korea to capitalize on that trip with its first-ever national display at the World Expo in Shanghai. (The chirpy cluelessness of MSNBC’s coverage here is priceless.) Neither the Cheonan incident nor reports in April that Pyongyang is planning a third nuclear test threw a damper on the fraternal amity blossoming in Northeast Asia.

The sense among China’s leaders that they have the latitude to display their true intentions in Korea has grown markedly in the last year. It was never accurate to perceive China as a like-minded ally of the U.S. in the Six-Party talks but, as late as April 2009, Beijing was still making a show of acting from common interests. That it no longer does can be attributed largely to the passivity and incoherence of the Obama administration. The administration’s only serious diplomatic response during the tense period after Cheonan’s sinking was to offer food aid to North Korea if it would rejoin the Six-Party talks.

But China has other examples to draw from as well, such as Obama’s unrealistic handling of Iran. The parallels between the Iran and Korea situations include, of course, multiple rounds of toothless international sanctions and U.S. bluster unsupported by any effective action. In the case of the Cheonan sinking, they also include a very specific analogue: the North Korean naval weapons involved. The analytical team’s finding is that North Korea used a Yono-class “midget” submarine to launch a former-Soviet-style 21-inch torpedo — the world’s most common type — at the South Korean corvette. Iran has produced seven Yono-design hulls as its Ghadir class since 2007, has fitted them to launch 21-inch torpedoes, and began adding them to the fleet in 2009. Iran, like North Korea, has been under UN sanctions throughout that period.

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Deporting Chinese Students

Last Wednesday, the South Korean government announced that it will deport Chinese citizens found guilty of attacks during the running of the Olympic torch in Seoul last month. “The justice ministry, while fully respecting the friendly ties between South Korea and China, will sternly punish Chinese nationals who committed illegal acts,” a ministry spokesman said. The authorities were specifically looking for four Chinese, including a student suspected of injuring a policeman in a fight in a hotel lobby at the end of the torch relay.

Small South Korea has historically had trouble dealing with large China, yet Seoul’s officials have now found the courage to stand up to Beijing, which had earlier rushed to the defense of the students. So what is the most powerful country in the history of the world doing about its Chinese student problem?

Chinese students in the United States made a series of death threats last month. The most prominent incident involved Grace Wang, a Duke freshman who tried to mediate between twelve pro-Tibet protestors and a crowd of about 500 angry people, mostly Chinese citizens. As a result, her home in China was vandalized, her family there was forced into hiding, and she became the target of death threats in the United States.

Those who made threats against Wang should be found, jailed, and, if foreign nationals, deported. And that goes for all the others who made death threats on American colleges during the last couple months. Universities are vital institutions, and attempts to undermine freedom of expression on campus strike at the heart of our society. There should be zero tolerance for such intolerance. And Washington needs to send a clear message to Beijing, which appears to have orchestrated the “pro-China” demonstrations of students.

It’s bad enough that the Chinese Communist Party represses China’s people. It’s worse when it seeks to repress ours.

Last Wednesday, the South Korean government announced that it will deport Chinese citizens found guilty of attacks during the running of the Olympic torch in Seoul last month. “The justice ministry, while fully respecting the friendly ties between South Korea and China, will sternly punish Chinese nationals who committed illegal acts,” a ministry spokesman said. The authorities were specifically looking for four Chinese, including a student suspected of injuring a policeman in a fight in a hotel lobby at the end of the torch relay.

Small South Korea has historically had trouble dealing with large China, yet Seoul’s officials have now found the courage to stand up to Beijing, which had earlier rushed to the defense of the students. So what is the most powerful country in the history of the world doing about its Chinese student problem?

Chinese students in the United States made a series of death threats last month. The most prominent incident involved Grace Wang, a Duke freshman who tried to mediate between twelve pro-Tibet protestors and a crowd of about 500 angry people, mostly Chinese citizens. As a result, her home in China was vandalized, her family there was forced into hiding, and she became the target of death threats in the United States.

Those who made threats against Wang should be found, jailed, and, if foreign nationals, deported. And that goes for all the others who made death threats on American colleges during the last couple months. Universities are vital institutions, and attempts to undermine freedom of expression on campus strike at the heart of our society. There should be zero tolerance for such intolerance. And Washington needs to send a clear message to Beijing, which appears to have orchestrated the “pro-China” demonstrations of students.

It’s bad enough that the Chinese Communist Party represses China’s people. It’s worse when it seeks to repress ours.

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“Everything Will Be in Ashes”

Today, Pyongyang threatened to destroy archrival South Korea. “Everything will be in ashes, not just a sea of fire, once our advanced pre-emptive strike begins,” promised an unidentified North Korean military analyst. The remarks, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, cap days of escalating tension on the peninsula. Yesterday, the North threatened to cut off all dialogue between the two states. Pyongyang pinned the blame for its bellicose words on recent comments by Kim Tae Young, the new chairman of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Wednesday, Kim said that his forces were ready to attack suspected North Korean nuclear sites if it appeared that Pyongyang was about to use atomic weapons against the South.

The exchange of nasty words about nuclear war comes amid a general breakdown in relations between the two Koreas. Last Thursday, Seoul withdrew all its officials from the Kaesong industrial park, just north of the Demilitarized Zone. Pyongyang demanded the withdrawal after the new South Korean government said that it would not expand the zone, created to attract South Korean manufacturers, until the North honored its promises to give up its nuclear weapons. On Friday, Pyongyang tested ship-to-ship missiles in what was characterized as a display of anger.

South Korea’s new president, Lee Myung-bak, has taken a noticeably tougher line than either of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. The North’s propaganda machine had mostly held off criticizing the South Korean president until last week. Now it appears that Pyongyang will try to undermine Lee by a new round of belligerent conduct and words.

Deteriorating relations on the Korean peninsula are bound to finally scuttle the Bush administration’s efforts to salvage the so-called six-party process. The North is months late on honoring its agreement to make a complete declaration of its nuclear programs, and even before last week there was little prospect that Pyongyang would reverse course and comply.

Despite its promises, the regime in Pyongyang has yet to make the critical decision to give up its atomic arsenal. We will not know for some time whether Kim Jong Il is holding out for a better deal from a new administration in Washington, as some contend, or whether, more probably, he has been unable to obtain the cooperation of his military to disarm. In any event, it is time for President Bush to acknowledge that his Korean policy is being overtaken by events in Korea. His counterpart in Seoul already knows there can be no progress until governments are willing to hold the enigmatic Kim to his promises. The time for American patience with the dangerous autocrat in Pyongyang is now over.

Today, Pyongyang threatened to destroy archrival South Korea. “Everything will be in ashes, not just a sea of fire, once our advanced pre-emptive strike begins,” promised an unidentified North Korean military analyst. The remarks, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, cap days of escalating tension on the peninsula. Yesterday, the North threatened to cut off all dialogue between the two states. Pyongyang pinned the blame for its bellicose words on recent comments by Kim Tae Young, the new chairman of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Wednesday, Kim said that his forces were ready to attack suspected North Korean nuclear sites if it appeared that Pyongyang was about to use atomic weapons against the South.

The exchange of nasty words about nuclear war comes amid a general breakdown in relations between the two Koreas. Last Thursday, Seoul withdrew all its officials from the Kaesong industrial park, just north of the Demilitarized Zone. Pyongyang demanded the withdrawal after the new South Korean government said that it would not expand the zone, created to attract South Korean manufacturers, until the North honored its promises to give up its nuclear weapons. On Friday, Pyongyang tested ship-to-ship missiles in what was characterized as a display of anger.

South Korea’s new president, Lee Myung-bak, has taken a noticeably tougher line than either of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. The North’s propaganda machine had mostly held off criticizing the South Korean president until last week. Now it appears that Pyongyang will try to undermine Lee by a new round of belligerent conduct and words.

Deteriorating relations on the Korean peninsula are bound to finally scuttle the Bush administration’s efforts to salvage the so-called six-party process. The North is months late on honoring its agreement to make a complete declaration of its nuclear programs, and even before last week there was little prospect that Pyongyang would reverse course and comply.

Despite its promises, the regime in Pyongyang has yet to make the critical decision to give up its atomic arsenal. We will not know for some time whether Kim Jong Il is holding out for a better deal from a new administration in Washington, as some contend, or whether, more probably, he has been unable to obtain the cooperation of his military to disarm. In any event, it is time for President Bush to acknowledge that his Korean policy is being overtaken by events in Korea. His counterpart in Seoul already knows there can be no progress until governments are willing to hold the enigmatic Kim to his promises. The time for American patience with the dangerous autocrat in Pyongyang is now over.

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Vulnerable North Korea

“There’s a growing understanding of the issues that need to be resolved,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill after meeting with his North Korean counterpart in Geneva late last week. Washington’s chief negotiator at the six-party talks was doing his best to show progress in the inconclusive negotiations to disarm Kim Jong Il’s abhorrent state. To date, Pyongyang has shown little inclination to provide a full accounting of its nuclear weapons programs in compliance with a prior agreement to do so by the end of last year.

A weakened Bush administration appears to be at a loss as to what to do in the face of the North’s recent intransigence. In the first week of this month, Hill imposed a March-end deadline on Pyongyang to honor its commitments, but it is apparent that the announced due date is meaningless and that the United States will impose no penalty for a failure to meet his timeline.

Diplomacy may require patience, but it certainly works best with the threat of coercion, especially where rogues armed with dangerous weapons are involved. Analysts say there is no military option against North Korea. Even if this notion is correct—which it is not—the tolerance of the President is a fundamental mistake. Events over the past several weeks show that Washington is not playing its strongest cards at an important moment.

An unseasonably warm and dry winter is adversely affecting the North’s autumn crop of wheat and barley. This abnormal weather comes on top of last August’s devastating floods. As a result, the UN’s World Food Program expects a larger-than-usual shortfall in North Korea’ harvest. Surging grain prices on global markets do not help Kim Jong Il. Moreover, both China and South Korea have substantially reduced shipments of food and fertilizer to the North Korean regime. “For Kim Jong Il, this will be his most difficult year,” says Park Syung-je of the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul.

The key is the new South Korean government. President Lee Myung-bak has announced that Seoul’s aid will be closely tied to Pyongyang’s adherence to its pledges of disarmament. Moreover, Lee, who travels to Washington in the middle of April, wants to align his North Korean polices with Washington’s. This means that the South will largely abandon the approaches of his predecessors, namely the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae Jung and the nearly identical Peace and Prosperity Policy of Roh Moo-hyun. Seoul’s new approach isolates China and makes it the sole supporter of North Korea. This permits the United States to put Beijing on the spot.

So the Bush administration has new tools to coerce Pyongyang and, more importantly, Beijing. The main issue, therefore, is whether Washington has the will to use them.

“There’s a growing understanding of the issues that need to be resolved,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill after meeting with his North Korean counterpart in Geneva late last week. Washington’s chief negotiator at the six-party talks was doing his best to show progress in the inconclusive negotiations to disarm Kim Jong Il’s abhorrent state. To date, Pyongyang has shown little inclination to provide a full accounting of its nuclear weapons programs in compliance with a prior agreement to do so by the end of last year.

A weakened Bush administration appears to be at a loss as to what to do in the face of the North’s recent intransigence. In the first week of this month, Hill imposed a March-end deadline on Pyongyang to honor its commitments, but it is apparent that the announced due date is meaningless and that the United States will impose no penalty for a failure to meet his timeline.

Diplomacy may require patience, but it certainly works best with the threat of coercion, especially where rogues armed with dangerous weapons are involved. Analysts say there is no military option against North Korea. Even if this notion is correct—which it is not—the tolerance of the President is a fundamental mistake. Events over the past several weeks show that Washington is not playing its strongest cards at an important moment.

An unseasonably warm and dry winter is adversely affecting the North’s autumn crop of wheat and barley. This abnormal weather comes on top of last August’s devastating floods. As a result, the UN’s World Food Program expects a larger-than-usual shortfall in North Korea’ harvest. Surging grain prices on global markets do not help Kim Jong Il. Moreover, both China and South Korea have substantially reduced shipments of food and fertilizer to the North Korean regime. “For Kim Jong Il, this will be his most difficult year,” says Park Syung-je of the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul.

The key is the new South Korean government. President Lee Myung-bak has announced that Seoul’s aid will be closely tied to Pyongyang’s adherence to its pledges of disarmament. Moreover, Lee, who travels to Washington in the middle of April, wants to align his North Korean polices with Washington’s. This means that the South will largely abandon the approaches of his predecessors, namely the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae Jung and the nearly identical Peace and Prosperity Policy of Roh Moo-hyun. Seoul’s new approach isolates China and makes it the sole supporter of North Korea. This permits the United States to put Beijing on the spot.

So the Bush administration has new tools to coerce Pyongyang and, more importantly, Beijing. The main issue, therefore, is whether Washington has the will to use them.

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McCain Blogger Call

John McCain just completed another blogger call. He began by talking about Kosovo, saying he believed it would be an independent country and that Vladimir Putin’s comments were “very unhelpful” and his discussion of Georgia’s breakaway provinces was “outrageous.” He also again took Barack Obama to task for offering to meet with Raul Castro without preconditions. He stated that Raul was “the bad guy of the duo” and responsible for sentencing people to death and maintaining a dictatorship and that McCain would only meet with him after “the prisons were emptied,” fair elections were held and other conditions had been met. (In response to a question later in the call he noted that the danger in meeting with Raul would be to legitimize him when a transition to a freer system might otherwise be possible. He argued that the embargo policy had successfully contained Castro.)

I asked him about the potential Democratic nominees’ unwillingness to recognize progress in Iraq. He said he was “disappointed but not surprised they continue to deny obvious facts” that political and military progress was being made. He termed it “almost Orwellian” that people would assert that the threat of withdrawal actually contributed to improved conditions. He suggested that his opponents need not “apologize” but they should admit they were wrong in opposing the surge. (He offered that MoveOn.org has a “significant influence in the Democrat party.”)

Abe Greenwald asked about Jay Lefkowitz’s criticisms (which were given the back of the hand by Secretary of State Condi Rice) that the Six Party talks involving North Korea should address human rights abuses. McCain said succinctly that he does believe the talks should address human rights and that North Korea remains the world’s largest functioning “gulag.” (He mentioned his disappointment that the South Korean government was not as “mindful” of the human rights abuses as it should be.) He said undue focus on the make-up of the talks rather than the content was misguided and drew analogies to Vietnam, mentioning that talks went on unsuccessfully for years until “B-52′s appeared in the skies.” He said that he was concerned about the North Korea’s failure to live up to its committments and its potential involvement with Syria’s nuclear program. (He ended his response by quoting Ronald Reagan’s “Trust but verify” addage.)

On other matters: 1) He expressed “distress” that Congressman Rick Renzi was indicted and agreed he would likely step down as an Arizona co-chair; 2) He said he was on “solid ground” in withdrawing from the public financing constraints imposed by the FEC as Congressman Dick Gephardt previously had done in similar circumstances; 3) He said he would be competitive in California and states in the northeast like New Jersey and even New York and intended to go to places Republicans usually don’t and compete in all states.; 4) Explained his “100 years in Iraq” comment as an indication that our security arrangements would be ongoing but that we would be successful militarily in the short term and defended himself against the Democratic charges that he was not expert on the economy by saying he was most expert on foreign policy given his decades of involvement in that area, but that his low tax, free market philosophy would stack up well against the Democrats. He declined to comment further on the New York Times lobbyist story.

In general, he seemed engaged and forward looking. There was no trace of animus or bitterness about yesterday’s events, and he seemed energized when talking about differences with his Democratic opponents.

John McCain just completed another blogger call. He began by talking about Kosovo, saying he believed it would be an independent country and that Vladimir Putin’s comments were “very unhelpful” and his discussion of Georgia’s breakaway provinces was “outrageous.” He also again took Barack Obama to task for offering to meet with Raul Castro without preconditions. He stated that Raul was “the bad guy of the duo” and responsible for sentencing people to death and maintaining a dictatorship and that McCain would only meet with him after “the prisons were emptied,” fair elections were held and other conditions had been met. (In response to a question later in the call he noted that the danger in meeting with Raul would be to legitimize him when a transition to a freer system might otherwise be possible. He argued that the embargo policy had successfully contained Castro.)

I asked him about the potential Democratic nominees’ unwillingness to recognize progress in Iraq. He said he was “disappointed but not surprised they continue to deny obvious facts” that political and military progress was being made. He termed it “almost Orwellian” that people would assert that the threat of withdrawal actually contributed to improved conditions. He suggested that his opponents need not “apologize” but they should admit they were wrong in opposing the surge. (He offered that MoveOn.org has a “significant influence in the Democrat party.”)

Abe Greenwald asked about Jay Lefkowitz’s criticisms (which were given the back of the hand by Secretary of State Condi Rice) that the Six Party talks involving North Korea should address human rights abuses. McCain said succinctly that he does believe the talks should address human rights and that North Korea remains the world’s largest functioning “gulag.” (He mentioned his disappointment that the South Korean government was not as “mindful” of the human rights abuses as it should be.) He said undue focus on the make-up of the talks rather than the content was misguided and drew analogies to Vietnam, mentioning that talks went on unsuccessfully for years until “B-52′s appeared in the skies.” He said that he was concerned about the North Korea’s failure to live up to its committments and its potential involvement with Syria’s nuclear program. (He ended his response by quoting Ronald Reagan’s “Trust but verify” addage.)

On other matters: 1) He expressed “distress” that Congressman Rick Renzi was indicted and agreed he would likely step down as an Arizona co-chair; 2) He said he was on “solid ground” in withdrawing from the public financing constraints imposed by the FEC as Congressman Dick Gephardt previously had done in similar circumstances; 3) He said he would be competitive in California and states in the northeast like New Jersey and even New York and intended to go to places Republicans usually don’t and compete in all states.; 4) Explained his “100 years in Iraq” comment as an indication that our security arrangements would be ongoing but that we would be successful militarily in the short term and defended himself against the Democratic charges that he was not expert on the economy by saying he was most expert on foreign policy given his decades of involvement in that area, but that his low tax, free market philosophy would stack up well against the Democrats. He declined to comment further on the New York Times lobbyist story.

In general, he seemed engaged and forward looking. There was no trace of animus or bitterness about yesterday’s events, and he seemed energized when talking about differences with his Democratic opponents.

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Talking with the Taliban

Today, after face-to-face negotiations in Afghanistan with the Taliban, South Korean officials announced a tentative arrangement to free nineteen South Koreans, who were seized on July 19. Seoul said that more discussion would be needed before the hostages, Christian aid workers, actually would be released. The Taliban has already killed two of the hostages and freed two others. The State Department’s Christopher Hill, acting on behalf of President Bush, had recently pledged support for South Korea’s efforts to negotiate with the kidnappers.

As a condition of the release of the remaining nineteen, South Korea confirmed (as it had previously announced) that it would withdraw its 200 non-combat troops from Afghanistan. Seoul also said it would stop all missionary activity in the country. The Taliban said that South Korea would withdraw all South Koreans from Afghanistan. The South Koreans did not meet the two most important Taliban demands: the payment of a ransom and the release of Taliban prisoners held by Kabul.

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Today, after face-to-face negotiations in Afghanistan with the Taliban, South Korean officials announced a tentative arrangement to free nineteen South Koreans, who were seized on July 19. Seoul said that more discussion would be needed before the hostages, Christian aid workers, actually would be released. The Taliban has already killed two of the hostages and freed two others. The State Department’s Christopher Hill, acting on behalf of President Bush, had recently pledged support for South Korea’s efforts to negotiate with the kidnappers.

As a condition of the release of the remaining nineteen, South Korea confirmed (as it had previously announced) that it would withdraw its 200 non-combat troops from Afghanistan. Seoul also said it would stop all missionary activity in the country. The Taliban said that South Korea would withdraw all South Koreans from Afghanistan. The South Koreans did not meet the two most important Taliban demands: the payment of a ransom and the release of Taliban prisoners held by Kabul.

The South Korean government has, in reality, not given up anything. It had already banned its citizens from traveling to Afghanistan. The Taliban also conceded little. It would have risked even more international condemnation if it had executed the remaining nineteen hostages, who over time would have become a liability in the hands of their captors. Their release, therefore, avoided a dilemma for the Taliban.

The whole incident, of course, further weakened the Karzai government. Yet it also demonstrated once again the inability of today’s democracies to defeat Islamic militants. Despite what they say, elected leaders these days will negotiate with thugs, fanatics, and terrorists.

In a peaceful world, presidents’ making deals with criminals, although deplorable, may not result in lasting injury to the international system. Yet President Bush tells us we are involved in a global death match with terrorists. If we are, in fact, fighting for civilization—which I believe we are—then Bush’s facilitation of the negotiations with the Taliban makes all of us appear feckless.

Either we are involved in an existential struggle or we are not. President Bush should let us know, and act accordingly.

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Seoul Train

On May 17, two trains, one moving south and the other north, crossed the demilitarized zone, the strip of land that divides the two Koreas. The last time a train traveled through what is now the DMZ was in 1951 during the Korean war.

“It is not simply a test run,” proclaimed South Korea’s unification minister, Lee Jae-jeong. “It means reconnecting the severed bloodline of our people.” But the reconnection lasted for only a few hours. There are no plans for regular service, or even further tests. There will be no more train runs until the south comes up with even more piles of cash. Seoul underwrote the entire cost of about $600 million to remove mines from the DMZ, reconnect the rail lines, and build stations. The work was completed in 2003, but no test run occurred until this month because of North Korea’s intransigence. To permit the trains to make their short runs last week, the south had to fork over another $86.5 million in aid to Pyongyang.

“I cannot understand why we should give rice, flour, fertilizer, and everything else the North Koreans want when they don’t do anything for us,” said Hong Moo-sun, a South Korean who demonstrated against last week’s test. Many foreigners would agree with Hong, especially because North Korea’s missile tests last July and nuclear detonation in October implicitly threatened the south. Yet there is a perfectly logical reason why the South Korean government engages in diplomacy that appears to be utterly inexplicable: the quest for political popularity.

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On May 17, two trains, one moving south and the other north, crossed the demilitarized zone, the strip of land that divides the two Koreas. The last time a train traveled through what is now the DMZ was in 1951 during the Korean war.

“It is not simply a test run,” proclaimed South Korea’s unification minister, Lee Jae-jeong. “It means reconnecting the severed bloodline of our people.” But the reconnection lasted for only a few hours. There are no plans for regular service, or even further tests. There will be no more train runs until the south comes up with even more piles of cash. Seoul underwrote the entire cost of about $600 million to remove mines from the DMZ, reconnect the rail lines, and build stations. The work was completed in 2003, but no test run occurred until this month because of North Korea’s intransigence. To permit the trains to make their short runs last week, the south had to fork over another $86.5 million in aid to Pyongyang.

“I cannot understand why we should give rice, flour, fertilizer, and everything else the North Koreans want when they don’t do anything for us,” said Hong Moo-sun, a South Korean who demonstrated against last week’s test. Many foreigners would agree with Hong, especially because North Korea’s missile tests last July and nuclear detonation in October implicitly threatened the south. Yet there is a perfectly logical reason why the South Korean government engages in diplomacy that appears to be utterly inexplicable: the quest for political popularity.

President Roh Moo-hyun’s approval rating has at times dipped to single digits this year, with his leftist Uri party scoring around 10 percent. Roh’s “peace and prosperity policy”—the continuation of his predecessor Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” of engaging the north—has produced few results. For this and other reasons, the conservative Grand National party looks likely to win the next presidential election, which will be held in December. Roh and the Uri party are desperate to show the electorate that the North Koreans are responding to Seoul’s especially soft brand of diplomacy. The train test, therefore, is essentially an expensive campaign maneuver intended to bolster the chances of Roh’s so-called “progressives” in December.

It is in the interest of the U.S. to keep these staged extravaganzas to a minimum, and to restrict Kim Jong Il’s sway with the South Korean electorate. If Kim is successful in influencing the next election, it will be our own fault. The train test could not have occurred if the Bush administration had not reversed its long-held position last February and agreed to an interim—and deeply flawed—nuclear deal with Pyongyang. That arrangement, which Kim has so far failed to honor, has given an excuse to South Korean politicians to restart aid to Pyongyang.

Why has the U.S., the strongest nation in history, been unable to disarm one of the world’s most destitute states? In part because our own diplomacy undermines that effort by helping our adversary.

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Let’s Not Worry Too Much About North Korea

Yes, they are developing nuclear weapons and tested one last October, but it may have been a partial dud. And apart from that, and apart from the fact that some 57 years ago they launched the Korean war, they’ve been a law-abiding member of the community of nations ever since, haven’t they? What have they done recently to violate the rules of comity? What in the world led President Bush to include them in his “axis of evil”? 

Former President Jimmy Carter believes that Bush’s statement was a reckless disaster that had the effect of tossing the fruits of his diplomacy “in the wastebasket.” Carter may be right. Or, on the other hand, he may be wrong. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) has just issued an update of its report on Pyongyong’s international behavior, titled North Korean Provocative Actions, 1950-2007, which is helpful in sorting things out (hat tip: Secrecy News).

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Yes, they are developing nuclear weapons and tested one last October, but it may have been a partial dud. And apart from that, and apart from the fact that some 57 years ago they launched the Korean war, they’ve been a law-abiding member of the community of nations ever since, haven’t they? What have they done recently to violate the rules of comity? What in the world led President Bush to include them in his “axis of evil”? 

Former President Jimmy Carter believes that Bush’s statement was a reckless disaster that had the effect of tossing the fruits of his diplomacy “in the wastebasket.” Carter may be right. Or, on the other hand, he may be wrong. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) has just issued an update of its report on Pyongyong’s international behavior, titled North Korean Provocative Actions, 1950-2007, which is helpful in sorting things out (hat tip: Secrecy News).

The report begins with some definitions. The term “provocation,” is defined to include the following activities: “armed invasion; border violations; infiltration of armed saboteurs and spies; hijacking; kidnapping; terrorism (including assassination and bombing); threats/intimidation against political leaders, media personnel, and institutions; incitement aimed at the overthrow of the South Korean government; actions undertaken to impede progress in major negotiations; and tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.”

Over the years, the North has done all these things, many of them more than once. The bellicose activity was particularly intense in the 1960’s and the decades surrounding it, i.e., in the 50′s and the 70′s, and also in the 80′s and 90′s: “From 1954 to 1992, North Korea is reported to have infiltrated a total of 3,693 armed agents into South Korea, with 1967 and 1968 accounting for 20% of the total.” But lately the North Koreans have appeared to calm down:

Reported provocations have continued intermittently in recent years, in the form of armed incursions, kidnappings, and occasional threats to turn the South Korean capital of Seoul into “a sea of fire” and to silence or tame South Korean critics of North Korea. Then, in July 2006, North Korea launched seven missiles into the Sea of Japan, and in October 2006, it tested a nuclear bomb.

Thus, there is nothing to worry about, nothing at all.

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