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Commentary: The Missiles of North Korea

By Lee Cullum, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Kim Jong-il, president of North Korea, is at it again. This time he may be about to test a Taepodong 2 missile which could reach the United States. The last time North Korea pulled something like this was in 1998, when Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, tested a Taepodong 1, which flew over Japan, then into the Pacific Ocean. It's the sort of thing that diplomats call "provocative," and indeed it is.

The Bush administration never has found its footing in dealing with Pyongyang. No sooner had then Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Washington would continue the negotiations begun by Bill Clinton near the end of his tenure than President Bush, in March, 2001, held a press conference with President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea in which he said that he was "skeptical" of Kim Jong-il and planned to have nothing to do with him. I was in Seoul at the time, and found people flabbergasted by this public undercutting of Kim Dae Jung's sunshine policy toward the North, for which he had won a Nobel Peace Prize.

But Bush was serious, so nothing much happened until late 2003, when finally China assembled six nations in Beijing-North and South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the U.S.-to deal with Pyongyang's nuclear program. The first three meetings went nowhere. Then, after more than a year during which Kim Jong-il refused to return to the bargaining table, a fourth meeting was held and the vague outline of an agreement was reached.

It fell apart immediately, however, as both sides began bickering over who was going to make the first move. Another gathering last November, designed to patch things back together, only made them worse.

Kim Jong-il did invite U.S. negotiator Chris Hill to Pyongyang a few weeks ago, but the administration declined, insisting instead on the six-nation context. That may not have been the wisest response.

If North Korean actually tests the Taepodong 2 missile, that could accentuate the differences between the U.S. and some of its compatriots in East Asia. Japan almost certainly would join Washington is further pursuit of a missile defense system. (The current system has been called nothing more than a scarecrow by former General Bob Gard.) The Japanese also would approve economic sanctions on Pyongyang and an effort to block any exports from North Korea of weapons technologies. China and South Korea, however, have opposed sanctions and have not been as concerned as one might expect about the nuclearization of North Korea. What they fear most is that Kim Jong-il's regime might fall, sending a flood of refugees over the border into their countries. China could thwart sanctions by the UN Security Council.

Still, North Korea is primarily a diplomatic problem, as President Bush has said over and over. Now he needs to shape up his diplomacy in that part of the world before it's too late to do any good.

Lee Cullum is a contributor to the Dallas Morning News and to KERA.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.

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