BOOK REVIEW: Diplomacy Delayed Is Not Diplomacy Denied

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BOOK REVIEW: Diplomacy Delayed Is Not Diplomacy Denied Failed Diplomacy: The Tragic Story of How North Korea Got the Bomb By Charles L. Pritchard, Brookings Institution Press. May 2007, 228 pp.

A funny thing happened to Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard on the way to writing Failed Diplomacy. President George W. Bush decided to try making deals directly with North Korea for a change-and succeeded.

When Bush took office, Pyongyang had stopped testing longer-range missiles, had one or two bombs worth of plutonium, and was verifiably not making more. Six years later, it had eight to ten bombs worth of plutonium, had resumed testing missiles, and had little reason to restrain itself from nuclear testing or, worse, generating more plutonium. U.S. pressure had failed to put the brakes on a North Korean nuclear program, sowing doubts among those in Japan and South Korea who question whether they can rely on Washington for their security, and potentially triggering a regional nuclear arms race.

Now, with Bush on board, the policy of reconciling with North Korea as it gets rid of its nuclear weapons programs, step by reciprocal step, is back on course. Bush's imprimatur also makes it easier for his successor to stay on the road to reconciliation.

What Pritchard documents in detail is not failed diplomacy, but untried diplomacy. By miscasting Bush as a prisoner of his gut instincts, in thrall to hard-liners who impeded diplomatic give-and-take at every turn, the book gives readers few clues to how his turnabout could have happened.

The reason in part is that Pritchard's book is a memoir, not a history, and like the best of the genre it puts the author at the center of the action. Pritchard was there for just a brief interval, however, as director for Asia on the National security Council (NSC) staff until the end of March 2001, when he moved over to the Department of State to be special envoy for North Korea until August 2003. As a result, the book has few revealing moments.

While on the NSC staff, Pritchard saw Bush up dose and personal, and his first impression was a lasting one. Just after his inauguration, Bush was making obligatory telephone calls to world leaders and rang up South Korea's president, Kim Dae-jung, who seized the moment to instruct Bush about the need to sustain diplomatic engagement with North Korea.

Bush, who reportedly does not abide much formality or tutoring, bristled. Pritchard writes, "The president put his hand over the mouthpiece of the telephone and said, 'Who is this guy? I can't believe how naive he is.'" His language may have been coarser, but the exchange was a foretaste of worse to come in U.S. relations with Seoul.

For most of the time, however, Prrtchard's vantage point is below the commanding heights, in the trenches where bureaucratic battles on North Korea were fought to a standstill for six long years. The result, as summed up succinctly by a senior official at the end of 2004, was "no carrots, no sticks and no talks" -in short, no policy.1 Pritchard captures that self-defeating struggle well.

The hard-liners Pritchard confronts are Robert Joseph, NSC senior director for nonproliferation; John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, a public nuisance but bureaucratic light-weight; Eric Edelman of the vice president's office; and J. D. Crouch, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy.

Yet for Pritchard, along with the rest of the world, the Oval Office is Plato's cave. He sees shadows on the wall, hears faint echoes of murmurs and whispers; but he can only guess what Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, even secretary of State Colin Powell, are saying and doing. That is often the fate of midlevel officials, but it was especially difficult to penetrate Bush's tight-lipped inner circle. …