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Finding a way out of the Pyongyang imbroglio

by Tom Plate

It is probably a good idea to regard the latest bombast of threats from North Korea as one usually does: as the antics of an angry child hurling the rattle out of the crib in hopes of getting parents to pay more attention … and right now!

This explanation is satisfactory in part because of our recognition that the child’s room for maneuver is limited by the confines of the crib.

So we throw the rattle back in, add in a warm bottle of milk (humanitarian aid), and hope to get a measure of peace and quiet before the next infant outburst.

But what if this latest series of tantrums is different? What if the baby is getting bigger and more athletic and increasingly capable of crawling over the top (the notorious Demilitarized Zone, near the 38th parallel) and into our lives to mess it up forever?

As we agree, the first explanation is more comforting. The second one is horrifying. So let us stick with the first and work with that one. There’s enough bad stuff going on in the world to not have to worry about a full-scale war there.

In this first scenario, though, the rest of the world just cannot go back to bed and hope for uninterrupted sleep. The new kid on the North Korean block clearly is not going to allow that. Kim Jong Un intends to keep us up at night as often as he can, until we do something about it.

And so here we have before us the third consecutive Kim trying to manage North Korea almost as if the rest of the world did not exist. What are we going to do?

Well we do know that he presumably does not want us to fold up the crib and throw it in the dumpster (being what happens if we bomb Pyongyang). We can assume that what he wants — more rationally — is the undivided attention of Mom and Dad. So here would be my “Handle With Care” policy for Baby Kim:

1. For South Korea’s (new) President Park Geun Hye: Pipe down and stop talking about North Korea. Even the most sensible statement can be twisted into a propaganda pretzel by the North. And your less sensible ones will only prompt the baby to scream louder. You won the election earlier this year. Unlike in the United States, South Korean presidents get but one five-year term.

What are you running for? Whom are you trying to impress? Play it cool, stay low, and do not be baited by the opposition. We all know you are the toughest Margaret Thatcher in Asia ever.

2. For U.S. President Barack Obama: Your turn to execute Nixon-to-China diplomacy. You don’t have to run for re-election, either, and you can afford a foreign policy flutter even if it fails. (And it probably will: You are dealing with a baby, after all.)

So how about it? First let Vice President Joe Biden visit Asia and then make believe he is ill and has to go to hospital — when in fact the personable vice president is executing a clandestine play date with Kim in Pyongyang.

The aim of the game is to get North Korea to agree to multiyear bilateral negotiations with the South. The goal of that is to create a very vague peninsula federalism (one country, two systems — China, Hong Kong style). It’d be a start.

Dear Mr. American President and Vice President: Stand not on ceremony. You have nothing to lose. Everyone will admire your courage in even trying. Forget about the inevitable firestorm of criticism from the Republican right. Besides, what have they done for peace lately? Iraq?

3. For U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon: The North Koreans try to demean you with the crude allegation that you are too pro-American. In fact you have done a balletic job in trying to maintain credibility with all members of the U.N. Security Council. Besides, North Korea is being disingenuous. Everyone knows that it is American love (and recognition … and aid) that is wanted. So we try this approach then: Let Ban bring along a gift bag of goodies as if one of the wise man deputized to do just that with Uncle Sam’s blessing.

The secretary general will want to stop in Beijing first and go over the master plan with the new president there, Xi Jinping. The Chinese trust the former South Korean foreign minister but he will want to take no chances. They have to be on board.

To Baby Kim, perched precariously up there in beautiful downtown Pyongyang: You’d better try to be on your best behavior, at least if you want to be treated as an adult.

Keep throwing that rattle out of the cage and one day you will wake up and find you are an old man … with a very tired arm … and still confined (by your own policies) to the little crib that is called (hilariously) the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. Is that really what is best for your people? Or for yourself?

Tom Plate, a veteran American columnist and career journalist, is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. His many books include the “Giants of Asia” series.

  • TokyoTengu

    I agree with most of this, but the idea of sending Joe Biden to negotiate anything scares me pretty badly. Sending him to negotiate anything with people as fundamentally unstable and unpredictable as the North Koreans would be totally insane.

    The person best suited for this job is former US President Bill Clinton. He has negotiated with the North Koreans before, he has the prestige of being a former President despite being a private citizen these days, and he is unlikely to say or do anything that would cause a diplomatic faux pas.

    He’s smart, can smooth the ruffled feathers and negotiate a tight little aid package that would calm the generals and give the NKs the breathing space they obviously are desperate to secure, in a way that would keep them from losing face.

    As to whether Obama is smart enough to see that, or whether would be interested in trying… who knows?

  • Graeme Parker

    Is Tom Plate a portmateau of Thomas Friedman and boilerplate?

  • Roan Suda

    Jimmy Carter, Madeleine Albright, Christopher Hill, Dennis Rodman…And now Joe Biden?? No wonder the Kims dismiss Americans as stupid, gullible pushovers!