&#91SCRIVENER&#93Time to cut deals with the North

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&#91SCRIVENER&#93Time to cut deals with the North

With Kim Jong-il last week demonized on the covers of The Economist, Time and Newsweek as Asia's Saddam Hussein, this might not be the best time to try to convince the world that he's actually a man we can do business with.

But at least let me try.

Two factors motivate me to marshal the evidence in his favor: first, a belief that we are only one step away -- and that step would be a U.S. belief, rightly or wrongly, that Mr. Kim has ordered the extraction of plutonium from those rods in Yeongbyeon -- from military action against North Korea. The second is that you, dear reader, and I live uncomfortably close to the action.

Actually, that makes one motivation: fear. Would that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. But if this situation follows a worst-case route a lot of us might be dead soon.

There are good reasons to work with Mr. Kim. One is that he's in charge. This doesn't mean that he can wake up in the morning and order a missile fired at Tokyo. Although not democratic, the particular style of leadership he inherited from his father requires him to preside paternally over squabbling hawks and doves.

So, he'll go with one side and, when their proposals don't work, switch to the other. He may even disagree with the approach being taken but lets it go forward and fail before changing tack. It's my guess that this kind of motive was behind the naval clash in June. He deliberately let the military screw up and then very untypically apologized to Seoul and restarted North-South ties.

Or, he may conduct twin approaches to keep both sides happy. Hence the lies about the nuclear program. Hence the digging of tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone when North-South peace talks started in the early '70s.

The main reason to work with Mr. Kim is that his neighbors believe he wants to change his country by improving relations with them. On a tour of China, he was heard berating his entourage to develop like the Chinese.

He has overcome the resistance of his own military to the Geumgang tourism project. He wanted Hyundai to help develop Sinuiju but after reading the company's negative report, accepted the idea of South Korean firms operating in Gaeseong.

South Koreans dealing with them say North Koreans do not understand business. Nor the outside world, we might add. And so they go one step at a time. When they're confident, they take the next step. It's slow and terribly irritating, but it points to a way forward: build confidence.

We can be realistic and accept that the son of Kim Il Sung is limited in how far he can go. He is not going to read a Khrushchev speech about the crimes of his father. But if you read between the lines, there has been a break of some sort with the past. Kim Jong-il's confession that North Korean agents had kidnapped several Japanese in the '70s and '80s was an extraordinary assault on his father's generation to improve relations with Japan.

There are good reasons to believe that while the nuclear program itself is defensive, the decision in October to come clean about it, was similarly designed to lead to improved relations with Washington.

So, how can the United States respond? Actually, a policy has already been worked out. It's called "sunshine" and Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for starting it.

It aims to calm North Korean fears, strengthen the hand of the technocrats and build confidence, which is what we've been talking about. It involves the kind of engagement that the United States undertook with the Soviet Union. It calls for patience and giving more than you get back initially -- what we capitalists call "investment."

The United States should support both that policy and South Korea's lead in pursuing it on behalf of us all before a more terrible darkness falls across the peninsula.

by Michael Breen

* The writer is managing director of Merit/Burson-Marsteller and author of "The Koreans." He is a member of the JoongAng Daily ombudsman committee.
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