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Commentary (March 26, 2004)

Advice for presidential candidate Kerry

Ralph A. Cossa  (President of the Pacific Forum CSIS, Hawaii, U.S.A)

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, is wise to ignore the tempest in the teapot caused by his revelation (gasp! surprise! surprise!) that there are leaders who would prefer that President George W. Bush not be re-elected. However, he needs to forcefully respond to the one foreign leader who seems willing to publicly endorse his campaign: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. It is in Kerry's interest -- and in America's national security interest -- that Kim be promptly and convincingly disabused of the notion that waiting until November in hopes of a Kerry victory will somehow get North Korea a better deal from Washington.

No one wins votes in the U.S. by being soft on North Korea. Pyongyang needs to understand that it is inconceivable that any U.S. Congress, regardless of composition or orientation, would ever agree to normalize relations with North Korea as long as it hangs on to its nuclear aspirations. Even if Kerry (or Bush) wanted to cut a one-sided deal with Pyongyang, Congress would never endorse or, more importantly, agree to fund such an agreement until the nuclear issue is successfully resolved.

Kerry needs to make it clear, early on, that whatever his differences regarding Bush's North Korea policy, he is in complete agreement with the ultimate U.S. objective -- the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs (CVID) -- and with the multilateral approach that makes South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia an integral part of the solution.

If the Kerry campaign wants to criticize the Bush administration for being too slow or too preoccupied to deal with the problem, or for sending mixed signals due to ongoing ideological debates within the administration between engagers and neocons, or for not always taking South Korean or other regional sensitivities into account, I would merely say "welcome to the club." But in trying to differentiate himself from the current administration, he needs to be careful not to send Pyongyang the wrong message or undermine the painstaking diplomacy that has resulted in a consensus among the dialogue partners as to the CVID objective.

Kerry also needs to endorse the current Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) process involving Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, which provides the foundation for the Bush administration's multilateral approach toward dealing with North Korea. This should not be hard to do politically, since the TCOG was actually created by the Clinton administration. TCOG has played a vital role in keeping Washington's two critical Northeast Asian allies singing the same tune when it comes to North Korea policy.

I must confess that, as old as I am, I cannot recall a time when politics actually did "stop at the water's edge." It clearly is not going to happen this year, and shouldn't; even during wartime, a president must be held accountable for his foreign policies, especially when they result in lives being put at risk, at home and abroad. But it is incumbent on the challenger to avoid digging himself into holes that would be difficult to get out of once the reality of governing replaces the rhetoric of campaigning.

It took President Bill Clinton several years to get over his "butchers of Beijing" comments or for Bush to square his China as "strategic competitor" outlook with the reality of having to deal constructively with our new Chinese "partner in diplomacy" on North Korea and other issues. Today Washington enjoys the best relations it has had in years, perhaps ever, with both China and Japan; bipartisan support for this accomplishment would make dealing with North Korea and other challenges much easier for Kerry if "regime change" comes to Washington. As Kerry argues convincingly that Washington needs to restore its damaged relations with friends and allies around the world, he needs to ensure that those few relationships currently on the right track remain there.

There is considerably anxiety in Japan that a Kerry administration might want somehow to "punish" Tokyo for being too close or too supportive of Washington. But the decision by Tokyo to commit both military personnel and considerable financial resources to help stabilize Iraq is consistent with Kerry's call to internationalize the Iraq reconstruction effort. The current six-party approach toward dealing with the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis likewise is in sync with his call for greater multilateral cooperation in dealing with international challenges.

It would be wise, and statesmanlike, for presidential aspirant Kerry to make the effort today to make our Asian friends and allies a bit more comfortable with the prospects of his possible election, while making North Korea a bit less comfortable, lest he be pictured as Kim's best friend in America and an impediment to the current diplomatic process.

(This article appeared in the March 24, 2004 issue of The Japan Times )

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