Monday, February 06, 2006

Nuclear Mishmash

BOOK REVIEW

Trying to make sense of international efforts to disarm North Korea of its ambitions to own nuclear weapons is like trying to follow three-dimensional chess. Ostensibly, all six countries that are part of the Six-Party talks favor a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

That includes even North Korea, which, in theory at least, is willing to trade its purported nuclear weapons for aid, recognition and light water reactors. Everyone, it would seem is singing from the same music sheet. In reality, all of the participants have conflicting agendas.

China basically wants to be seen as a good world citizen by hosting the negotiations and to gather any favors that might come its way. But Beijing has relatively little interest in nuclear proliferation, indeed, has been a proliferator itself. Basically, the Chinese don’t believe North Korea would be stupid enough to drop a bomb on them.

South Koreans can’t bring themselves to believe that their brother Koreans would use a nuclear weapon against them and many may harbor some secret pride that fellow Koreans might have the bomb. Japan is obsessed with returning its nationals abducted by the North in the 1970s. Russia is mostly along for the ride.

And what about the United States? American policy is torn by a perpetual ideological tug-of-war. One faction wants to pressure North Korea into collapse; the other sees little choice but to negotiate.

In such circumstances, you need a scorecard to keep track of all the players. Gordon C. Chang’s book Nuclear Showdown, North Korea Takes on the World, (Random House, $25.95, 327 Pages) attempts to provide one but with only limited success.

The chapters on Japan and South Korea are good in describing their particular obsessions. The chapter on North Korea is intriguing in describing a society undergoing more ferment and change beneath the surface of repression than a lot of other observers have noted.

Chang does not appear to have actually ever been in North Korea. That in itself is not crippling. Many a good journalist has returned from Pyongyang with nothing much more than impressions of empty boulevards, sterile buildings and statues of the ex-Great Leader Kim Il Sung.

Nuclear Showdown is supported by an impressive amount of secondary sources, including interviews with various aid workers, scholars and politicians. But all too often it is punctuated by extraordinaryly sweeping, often dubious, contradictory and even bizarre statements.

We are told on one page: “no person in Japan takes pride in Article 9” (The part of Japan’s Constitution that renounces war.) On the next page, Japan is “a nation that is still influenced by a pacifist mentality.”

“Kim Jong Il will soon be able to land a nuke anywhere in America,” Chang declares on one page. A little later, maybe not: “At this moment, the North Korean leader cannot put nuclear warheads on his missiles, even short-range ones.”

Former President Jimmy Carter is gratuitously slammed as a “dictator groupie” on one page then lauded as a “global human rights advocate” on another. “To his lasting credit, [Jimmy Carter] brought a much needed emphasis on democracy to America’s Korean policy.”

The Yalu and the Tumen rivers that form the border between North Korea and China make for what is described as an “artificial” border. Right. About as artificial as the Rio Grande border between Mexico and the U.S. And so on and so on.

The penultimate chapter, in which the author supposedly ties up the loose ends and presents his thoughts on a solution to the nuclear crisis is a complete muddle. He seems to be suggesting at first that the U.S. should disarm so that it has the moral persuasion to force Pyongyang’s hand.

Then he comes down for unilateral military action even though it might cost millions of lives. “The loss of any South Korean diminishes the world, of course. But should it deter America?” he writes. Some South Koreans might demur.

No one can doubt the urgency that Chang feels about the subject, but the readers is still left puzzled about what to do about it. We need a better scorecard than the author has provided.

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