Korea crisis: Straight shooter and loss of face
By Gary LaMoshi

HONG KONG - While the administration of US President George W Bush blandly assures all that it can handle nuclear-armed North Korea through diplomacy, it refuses to deploy the best diplomatic tool, direct talks. Ignoring the apparent non sequitur, the position also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Asian cultures, one that has plagued US policy in the region for decades.

The Bush people don't want to be drawn into negotiations with North Korea because they don't want to reward that rogue regime for bad behavior. Their newly unveiled policy of "tailored containment" would be laughable if the situation weren't so serious.

This strategy relies on isolating North Korea to bring about its collapse. News flash: 50 years of isolation have made North Korea - the Hermit Kingdom - what it is today, the most dangerous state on the planet. Moreover, this policy requiring "maximum multilateral cooperation", according to a senior Bush administration official, doesn't have any of North Korea's neighbors on board.

Letting South Korea take the diplomat lead in the neighborhood would have been a smart US move to win that cooperation. However, it appears that South Korea, which has the most to lose from a nuclear North, has jumped into the void left by the Bush administration in search of a way out.

Face facts
Most fundamentally, Bush policy makers fail to realize that North Korea's Dear Leader Kim Jong-il doesn't want more food aid or fuel or even nuclear weapons, really. What he wants most of all is face.

The concept of giving face is not unique to Asia, but it is most highly prized here. It means showing respect in a public way that acknowledges the status of the other fellow. It's similar to what goes on in Western business between bosses and peons. But unlike corporate brown-nosing, it doesn't imply a subordinate relationship. Giving face is not necessarily about lowering yourself - then you would lose face - it's about respecting and acknowledging the status of the other guy in full view of others.

It sounds incredibly simple, but it runs counter to some deeply held American values, such as honesty. A "straight shooter" who doesn't sugarcoat what he or she thinks wins respect in the United States, even if the message is unwelcome. In Asia, straight shooters would be taking public potshots at the other side's face, making themselves, and whomever they represent, pariahs.

People in Asia take face very seriously, and the loss of face even more so. When Bush met with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and questioned the wisdom of the Nobel laureate's "Sunshine Policy" toward the North, it wasn't just an insult to the only statesman in the room, it was a slap at North Korea.

When Bush then proceeded, without apparent provocation, to include North Korea in his "axis of evil", that was a direct insult not only to Dear Leader Kim but to every advisor who had urged cooperation rather than confrontation with the West, and a clear signal that the United States wanted to remain North Korea's enemy. We'll never know whether North Korea was cheating on its nuclear promises all along, but the loss of face inflicted by the Bush people, in Asian eyes, was a clear provocation. It would be impossible to consider any nation that delivered such a public insult as a potential friend or trustworthy partner.

Wrong for human rights
The failure to give face is behind the failure of US policy to produce meaningful human rights reforms in China despite three decades of otherwise constructive engagement. Lecturing China publicly about human rights and introducing resolutions of condemnation in international forums makes cheap domestic political points with the best friends and worst enemies of Jesse Helms, while stiffening Beijing's resolve to stand up to these pressures. The Chinese people pay the price.

A better way to promote change is to praise Beijing publicly, call it a great power and America's most important partner for progress and stability on the Asian mainland. Let the CNN and Chinese Central TV cameras whir as US leaders embrace their Chinese counterparts.

Behind closed doors, lay down the law to Beijing. These are US conditions for giving China what it wants. If new leader Hu Jintao hopes to come to the United States for a state visit, here are the political prisoners China must release. If China wants to list another dud state company on the New York Stock Exchange, then it needs to stop jamming the Voice of America. If China wants the US to consider excluding Taiwan from its missile-defense umbrella, then Beijing must stop pressing for a draconian sedition law in Hong Kong ... you get the idea.

And when the meeting is over, don't forget to smile warmly for the cameras and praise the useful and productive discussions with our Chinese partners. If the Chinese want to be sourpusses and ruin the public love fest, let them. But they won't, of course, because they'd lose face.

Smile for the camera
The same formula can be applied to North Korea. The North wants direct talks with the United States and, eventually, to negotiate a non-aggression pact. So give them face with a meeting and a photo op for North Korean TV and its dozens of viewers, along with the international media.

Alone across the table, tell the North Korea side that their possession of nuclear weapons and plans to produce more are completely unacceptable, and delineate US demands for resolving this crisis. Since the Bush people appear at a loss as to how to defuse the situation effectively, here's my suggestion. I'd inform North Korea that it has six to 12 hours to admit an international team (including South Koreans) that will shut down all of its nuclear facilities and take possession of North Korea's nuclear weapon, as Kim's regime renounces nuclear weapons forever. Once that's done, North Korea can request talks with South Korea and even the United States to negotiate a permanent peace on the peninsula, non-aggression pacts, or anything else it likes.

If North Korea doesn't meet the deadline or shows any sign of aggressive action before it, US bombers already in the air will level Pyongyang and every nuclear facility in North Korea. I'd have the text of President Bush's address to the nation (conveniently translated into Korean for the Dear Leader) explaining why the United States was compelled to take this action - the Bush administration's flimsy justifications for war with Iraq actually apply in large part to North Korea - set for delivery in the event of hostilities.

I'd also assure the North Koreans that the US knows exactly where the Dear Leader is, and that there is not a cave in the country deep enough for him to hide in. Whether that's true or not is beside the point; truthfulness is a far less important Asian value than face.

This process conforms to the Bush administration's position that there will be no negotiations with North Korea and that Kim Jong-il cannot gain any advantage through violating previous agreements. But it places the US demands where they will be clearly heard and understood in a way that leaking them to friendly reporters in Washington does not. And it very publicly gives North Korea face.

Then the American team walks out of the meeting with big smiles and praise for the constructive talks and open attitudes of the North Korean side that will surely lead to a fruitful, mutually beneficial outcome. One danger is that the North Korean regime is less rational than China's and might leave the meeting blabbing about American arrogance and the insult to the North Korean people. It might even reveal the US demands. If so, it'd wind up losing face, and a whole lot more.

(©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Jan 8, 2003

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How to win friends and influence Asians (Nov 22, '02)


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