LAST SPRING in South Korea, I wrote after long talks with diplomats and analysts that there was really nothing very mysterious (the word always used by American diplomats) about North Korea's intentions. In Washington, this was heretical: Pyongyang seems to be eternally the regime we just love to be mystified by!
At the time, I listed the late Kim Il Sung's implacable long-range goals: to get U.S. troops out of Korea, while in the process cleverly doing everything possible to delegitimize the South Korean government, so that the two Koreas can be unified under his or his son's command.
Then I added: "Within the last few weeks, little noticed in Washington's belated uproar over Kim's nuclear threats, North Korea set down still another condition in the ongoing game. It neatly added to the equation that the armistice treaty of 1955 must be replaced by a genuine peace treaty."
"They think that they have superiority and legitimacy over the South Korean leadership," Si-Uk Nam, managing director of Dong-A-Ilbo newspaper in Seoul and a savvy observer, told me at the time, "and they are going to get rid of that obstacle by approaching the U.S. and gaining a peace treaty."
Why, you may well ask, bring up that "old stuff" seven months later when we should be (and surely are) celebrating the return of Army Pilot Bobby Hall after 13 harrowing days in North Korean captivity? Why not just get on with the $4 billion nuclear agreement with the North Koreans and assume that, like snakes, although they are not exactly slithering away, they may at least be shedding their skins?
Well, because . . . if you looked into the small print of this winter's new take on the old story, you find that it is really the same story all over again. In these negotiations, the North Koreans demanded that, in order to get the officers back and continue the nuclear deal, the United States bypass the U.N.-administered Military Armistice Commission created at the end of the Korean War. They want the creation of a separate channel that would consist only of North Korean and American military officials and no South Koreans.
Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., who was in Pyongyang just after the Americans were shot down, said that North Korea was indeed "upping the ante" and becoming "more recalcitrant in dealing with the United States." Meanwhile, the United States actually gave in to a dangerous degree on the "direct talk" issue, when the administration promised to set up one-on-one military discussions "in an appropriate forum" with the North on ways to prevent similar accidents.
Or, as the well-informed American consultant in Seoul, Michael Breen, put it: "In a sense, the North Koreans have already succeeded. They're in Pyongyang holding this American pilot and saying, 'We've taken care of the nuclear treaty. Now what we need is a peace treaty.' "
And so, it is important to realize that this cornerstone insistence of Kim Il Sung has not changed. Even with the "great leader's" death last summer, his intentions remain solidly in place in Pyongyang.
Then we have the great leader's playboy son, Kim Jong Il. Over the years, this dear leader's main cause in life has seemed to be importing long-legged blond Swedish girls, with whom surely he is discussing "Kim Il Sung thought." But all the events of the last two weeks strongly indicate that Kim Jong Il is being thrust to the side by the hard-line military. It has always been thus with the sons of communist dictators.
So what we really see is a totally consistent North Korea. Except for, apparently, the exquisite tortures they once employed so indiscriminately, all the techniques of recent weeks were the same: faked pictures of Mr. Hall, the morbid forcing of a "confession," concentrated attempts to humiliate the United States and above all to break it off from the hated South Korean government.
These indicators do not bode well for the innocence of the Clinton administration in providing huge amounts of fuel and technology in exchange for Pyongyang's "word" in halting its nuclear program. Indeed, it looks as though the North Koreans are already using the agreement for its cynical business as usual.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.