WASHINGTON--It's only March, but we can safely award the 2003 trophy for most risible editorial pronouncement. It goes, as usual, to The New York Times, whose Tuesday editorial calling for the Bush administration to negotiate directly with North Korea (the U.S. has refused to do so until North Korea stops its nuclear program) ends with the following pronunciamento: ``The place for insisting that bad North Korean behavior will not be rewarded is at the negotiating table.''
Read that again and savor it. This is transparently, definitionally wrong. The negotiating table is a place where you give and take. The one place where you cannot insist that bad behavior will not be rewarded is the negotiating table--or there would be no negotiations.
The battleship Missouri was not a negotiating table. On the Missouri, we made unconditional demands. At a negotiating table, you make concessions. That's what negotiations mean. Indeed, the very act of acceding to Pyongyang's demand for bilateral talks is a major concession.
Sometimes appeasement is the only available policy. While advocating concessions, however, one mustn't pretend that nothing is being given away. The time for appeasement may indeed have arrived, but it is too dangerous and important a policy to be carried out amid fantasies.
If we agree to direct talks with North Korea, it will be for the purpose not of lecturing them on their international obligations, but of making concessions. Should we? We need realism here and the reality is that in the last two months, the U.S. position in Korea has dramatically deteriorated:
(1) We discovered that we have zero diplomatic leverage in the region. We thought the neighborhood would help quiet the crisis by putting pressure on North Korea. South Korea, China, Russia and Japan have done nothing. Less than nothing. China fears the collapse of North Korea will lead to refugees and chaos and loss of South Korean investment; South Korea is afraid of war and the devastating effect it would have on Seoul.
The common denominator in this collective abdication is that if pressure were applied to North Korea and a war broke out today, it would be fought locally and the locals would suffer. If the war could be postponed for several years, it could then reach American soil. North Korea will then have the ability, with missiles and nuclear weapons, to attack the American homeland with devastating effect.
The neighbors, therefore, would prefer that if there is to be war, it be tomorrow. They are quite content to ignore the problem and kick the can down the road indefinitely.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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