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Is the world safer now?

E. Benjamin Skinner is writing "A Crime So Monstrous: A Living History of Contemporary Slavery," to be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in 2007.

LISTENING TO President Bush’s State of the Union speech nearly four years ago, I thought that putting North Korea in the “axis of evil” made as much sense as including Kim Jong Il on Seventeen magazine’s “best-dressed list.” But it is a dubious hallmark of this administration that the United States’ foreign enemies have a way of living down to our expectations.

Iraq is now a wellspring of terrorism. Iran’s new president wants to wipe our closest ally in the region off the map. Kim’s ambition to threaten the world is now unmasked.

At the time of Bush’s speech, however, “evil” seemed an ill-fitting epithet for North Korea. Bizarre, dangerous, yes. But there was no plausible connection between North Korea and 9/11. (Nor, for that matter, was the country partnered with the other two states to form an “axis” of anything.)

President Clinton had supported South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s attempt to thaw relations with North Korea, which augured a pleasant spring. North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program in 1994. In October 2000, Madeleine K. Albright became the first U.S. secretary of State to visit the Dear Leader Kim and 100,000 of his well-choreographed subjects. Even 9/11 seemed as if it might bring the countries closer: In its wake, North Korea signed several international antiterrorism conventions.

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The Bush administration wasn’t buying it. Shortly after he took office in 2001, the president expressed doubt that North Korea was “keeping all terms of all agreements.” He was right. Under Clinton’s watch, North Korea had steadily enhanced its nuclear capabilities with help from Pakistan’s national hero, Abdul Qadeer Khan.

After the 2002 State of the Union address, Kim bore his fangs. North Korea soon admitted that it had highly enriched uranium, expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Then the sack of Baghdad prompted North Korea to announce “the Iraqi war proved that disarmament leads to war.” Kim unveiled plans to build a nuclear weapon to deter similar U.S. designs on Pyongyang. Early this year, North Korea declared itself a nuclear state, pulled out of the six-party disarmament talks, fired a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan and asserted its right to launch a preemptive nuclear strike.

North Korea returned to the disarmament talks in July, and we had a new man waiting. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, a member of the team that brought Slobodan Milosevic to heel, had backed down a dictator before. In September, the fourth round of talks ended with a communique that was generally seen as a step forward: an agreement for principles of disarmament.

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Then things fell apart. North Korea backed out of a pledge to abandon its nuclear program, demanding that the United States first provide light-water nuclear reactors, which are less prone to use in producing weapons material. Washington, to avoid succumbing to nuclear blackmail, responded that Pyongyang must disarm before the reactors could be discussed.

As the talks go forward, Hill faces a tremendous challenge. He proved himself to be A-class by enlisting Beijing to bring Kim back to the negotiations, but two personality factors complicate his task.

First, Kim is dangerous and untrustworthy. He is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons and has demonstrated his willingness to starve his people to fortify his own position.

Second, although Bush has accurately described Kim, he also has called him “a pygmy,” “a spoiled child” and “a tyrant” who “runs huge concentration camps.” That’s all true, aside from the pygmy business.

But when dealing with a megalomaniac like Kim, words matter. A hard line with Pyongyang is warranted, and deliberate ambiguity and deterrence are justified. But it’s not kowtowing to call even the most odious dictator by his name. It is helpful to do so, especially if we have decided to jaw-jaw, rather than war-war. The administration’s rhetoric is not only damaging Hill’s ability to negotiate effectively, but it has further eroded relations with South Korea, one of our most important allies.

Since Bush took office, South Korea has diverged from U.S. policy toward the North. Trade between the two Koreas has grown steadily over the last four years, and though the Korean War never officially ended, South Koreans no longer consider Pyongyang the country’s main enemy. A 2004 poll showed that 39% of South Koreans point to the United States as being “the country most threatening,” with 33% naming North Korea. South Korea’s median age is 34, and the new generation has no memory of the sacrifice that the United States rendered on behalf of its republic.

Presumably, the president’s swagger is for domestic consumption. For America’s sake, though, he should desist his taunting, even if it is meant as a kind of “good cop/bad cop” routine with South Korea and China, both also eager to see a nuclear-free peninsula but more soft-spoken in their approach. Kim will continue to exploit the widening rift between the United States and our partners in the negotiations.

During Bush’s tenure, the only real progress toward disarmament came when the hard-liners in his administration stepped aside and the president rose above Kim’s schoolyard taunts. The softening of American rhetoric in September 2003 led the following February to Kim’s agreement to resume talks.

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Bush need not refer to call Kim names. A simple “Mr. Kim Jong Il” will suffice. The president would do well to listen to the quintessential American diplomat, the late W. Averell Harriman: “Conferences at the top level are always courteous. Name-calling is left to the foreign ministers.”


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