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HONG KONG — As the latest Korean crisis has developed, one contradiction has been obvious: The Bush administration refused to talk with North Korea until Pyongyang abandoned nuclear blackmail and returned to honoring all the treaties and agreements that it has recently repudiated. Yet the Bush administration also constantly reiterated that this crisis — which it has refused to label as a crisis — could be solved by diplomacy.

Now a lot of things can be accomplished through diplomacy. But nothing can be achieved without talking.

Of course, the Bush administration was trying to make a serious point with its refusal to talk: No nation should have to be persuaded to keep its commitments. As the North Koreans have demanded fresh talks with the Americans, they projected the image of seeking a further reward for doing what they had already promised to do, but had not done.

The North Koreans have violated four agreements with their current nuclear brinkmanship: the 1994 Agreed Framework, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Safeguards Agreement between North Korea and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and, perhaps most important, the 1991 Joint North-South Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Clearly, the North Koreans have sought further negotiations expecting more inducements to keep these formal pledges. The Americans have been absolutely right to refuse.

Regrettably several Asian nations, notably South Korea, have been less insistent. They thereby fail to realize that to give in easily to the North Koreans on this point, and to instead merely promise more “engagement” only opens the way for international anarchy. Every rogue nation will start breaking treaties in order to facilitate international intercourse.

But as North Korea predictably escalates its brinkmanship, believing more appeasement is just around the corner, and as the United States belatedly begins to pay more attention, the two nations provide a pointed reminder of one generally overlooked aspect of this latest Korean crisis: the fact that both North Korea and the U.S. have violated one crucial clause in their 1994 Agreed Framework.

The 1994 Agreed Framework was the first treatylike accord reached by the U.S. and North Korea since the Korean armistice was signed in 1953. The first section of it dealt with the basic exchange — a North Korean freeze on its nuclear weapons program in return for the American promise to provide North Korea with two proliferation-proof light-water nuclear reactors plus fuel oil while they were being built.

But there was a second and often forgotten section of the deal that promised something equally important — that “the two sides will move towards full normalization of political and economic relations.”

Clause 2 of Section Two laid out how such normalization would be achieved: “Each side will open a liaison office in the other’s capital following resolution of consular and other technical issues through expert-level discussions.”

Clause 3 of Section Two went even further: “As progress is made on issues of concern to each side, the U.S. and DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) will upgrade bilateral relations to the Ambassadorial level.”

It never happened. Clauses 2 and 3 have both been honored in the breach by both nations.

Liaison offices were a diplomatic device used to bridge the gap between when U.S. President Richard Nixon first broke the Sino-American ice in 1972, and when U.S. President Jimmy Carter formally recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979. At that time the liaison offices served their purpose well. They provided, in essence, the substance of diplomatic relations in the absence of diplomatic relations.

Liaison offices might have also served the U.S. and North Korea well. In the midst of this Korean crisis, one is left wondering how different things might have been had the two sides implemented this part of the Agreed Framework.

At the very least, North Korea and the U.S. would have gone on talking to each other amid growing differences. Very likely, had the two nations set up liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington D.C., and if they had operated effectively, this present crisis would not have erupted in the first place.

I have been unable to discover why liaison offices were not established. In December 1994 a North Korean delegation visited Washington for the first round of negotiations on this issue, but, after that, nothing is noted. The three books recently written on negotiating with North Korea (all by Americans) are silent on the subject.

One can only guess that the North Koreans were their usual intransigent selves — as they tend to be in nearly every negotiation. In this regard, it may be significant that no liaison offices have been set up yet in Seoul and Pyongyang in the wake of the summit meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in June 2000.

The two Koreas still communicate with each other through the truce village of Panmunjom. They did so recently, and the exchange followed the usual tit-for-tat procedure.

First, South Korea suggested that ministerial North-South talks be held Jan. 14-17 in Seoul. True to form, North Korea responded by suggesting Jan. 21-24. This was no breakthrough, though it was made to appear as such. It will be the ninth round of ministerial exchanges since the June 2000 summit. The South Koreans will raise the nuclear issue. For the record, the North will say that it will only discuss that topic with the U.S.

Washington may also be partly, or even mainly, responsible for the lack of mutual liaison offices. Possibly the Americans once again confused diplomacy and morality. The American historical tendency has been to regard diplomatic recognition as tantamount to conferring moral approval on a regime. Clearly the Clinton administration was unwilling to confer such status on North Korea in 1994, especially just after the sweeping Republican congressional victory in the midterm elections that year.

The ease with which some European embassies have been recently set up in Pyongyang reflects another tradition — the belief that embassies are a tactical necessity rather than a moral imperative. After all, they allow even enemies to communicate with each other, under the Churchillian principle that “jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.”

Whatever the explanation, one thing is almost certain: Had the Clinton administration insisted on quickly setting up liaison offices, North Korea would now not have made the bizarre request to go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to open a dialogue with a former official of the now defunct Clinton administration.

Had mutual liaison offices been set up, Pyongyang would have long ago learned that a Clintonite Democratic state governor, even if he is an “old friend,” does not usually provide the best access to a Republican administration, especially that of President George W. Bush.

But then, had mutual liaison offices been set up, the Bush administration would have had no excuse for not talking to North Korea at any level from January 2001 until Oct. 3, 2002.

Best of all, if mutual liaison offices had been set up, Kim Jong Il would have finally learned that brinkmanship is not the best way of communicating with other nations.

Who knows? If the Agreed Framework had been carried out in this vital respect, Kim’s script-writers, who are today reproducing the North Korea’s rhetorical excesses of the 1993-94 confrontation word-for-word, would have long ago found other more productive employment.

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