Crazy in the "Hood"
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN - Nov 20, 2002SEOUL, South Korea — The best way to understand the North Korea problem is to imagine a small neighborhood in which one of the neighbors, an unemployed loser, has placed dynamite around his house and told all the others that unless they bring him Chinese takeout food every day — and pay his heating bills — he will blow up his house and the neighborhood with it. The local policeman, affectionately called Uncle Sam — whose own house is safely across town but who walks the beat in this neighborhood — is advising the neighbors not to give in. "Very easy for you to say," the neighbors tell Uncle Sam. "But we have to live with this guy."
What strikes you most coming from Washington to South Korea is the contrast between the near-hysteria with which North Korea is viewed in Washington — now that it has disclosed another clandestine nuclear bomb program in violation of its 1994 promise to end it — and the rather ho-hum manner in which South Koreans greet this news.
After decades of living through North Korean threats, and after five recent years of "sunshine" engagement with the North, which has given the South a much clearer idea of how poor the North really is, many South Koreans seem to view North Korea more like a crazy aunt than a strategic threat. They either don't really believe its threats or assume the U.S. will deal with them in the end. This attitude may be delusional, but it is very widespread. A South Korean TV reporter told me that many people she interviews go so far as to ask her why the U.S. is "bullying" the North.
"The young generation, even people in their 30's and 40's, they don't remember the [Korean] war; they are a real postwar generation," says former Prime Minister Lee Hong Koo. "North Korea is less dangerous to them. It makes no sense to them to have another war. The older generation still feels a war is a possibility — they feel the Communists can do things that make no sense."
So far, though, more Koreans have mentioned to me the North Korean cheerleaders — with white pompoms — that the North sent with its soccer team to last month's Asian Games in South Korea than they have the new nuclear threats. Indeed, South Korea is in the midst of a presidential election campaign, yet the "nuclear crisis" is barely mentioned — partly because no candidate wants to be blamed for frightening away foreign investors. "The North is like a Pandora's box," said Chung-in Moon, a Yosei University Korea expert. "You don't know what will happen when you open it. Best to be very careful."
Given these South Korean views, given that China, Russia and Japan do not want a confrontation with the North either, U.S. policy options are limited. Make no mistake, serious South Korean strategists value President Bush's rhetorical hard line. "South Korea on its own does not have strong enough leverage to change the North's behavior — only the U.S. does," says Taewoo Kim, an expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis. South Korean strategists want the North to hear that tough Bush rhetoric — they just don't want the president to act on it. They want America to brandish a big stick and let its allies talk softly.
And that seems to be the collective strategy that is taking shape. It could best be described as "suspend and talk." President Bush suspended the heavy oil shipments that North Korea needs to heat itself through the winter, as punishment for its latest clandestine nuclear program. At the same time, though, the U.S., Tokyo and Seoul have all — surprisingly — signaled a willingness to address North Korean concerns about its survival if it dismantles its latest nuke program.
How many times are we going to buy this carpet? More than you might think. Sure, some Bush hawks would like to just bash the North, but the neighbors will never go along. Their view is that when dealing with a heavily armed crazy state like North Korea — which will probably never give up some kind of nuclear deterrent — all you can do is steadily reduce its ability to wreak havoc. All you can do is shrink its nuclear programs in exchange for food, and expand trade and investment to alleviate some of its abject poverty — so when it does collapse it does the least damage possible.
A crazy state like the North can have only a crash landing, but the fewer nukes it has lying around when it does, and the fewer starving people, can make the difference between a total mess and a total disaster. And those are our choices.