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North Korea: Handle With Care

This article was written by CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen.

It's that time, again. Time for North Korean diplomacy. And we suggest a very healthy dose of skepticism that it will do any good — again.

New talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions are set for the end of July in Beijing. By the time you read this, even in the wired, Internet, 24-hour news cycle world, the situation may have changed again. Only the North Koreans' stance on nuclear talks changes faster than the speed of cyberspace.

Here's what's at stake: a nuclear North Korea, more than glad to sell to other rogue nations.

Not good.

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So it begs the question of why the Bush Administration has handled this one to make it, at least from the view here, worse.

First, President Bush made it personal. It was bad enough to include North Korea in his "Axis of Evil" crack, but then the President made it clear he personally dislikes North Korea's leader. North Korea's leader answered in turn that he didn't think much of George W.

It was like schoolboys, fighting at recess.

Another American President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, said while he was leading the Allied forces in World War Two that he never demonized his opposing generals by name. His reasoning was wise because he did not know if someday he would be dealing with them, face to face.

Second, the U.S. has refused to negotiate with North Korea directly, choosing instead the format of six-nation talks. Granted, the six nations — the U.S, Japan, China, Russia, North and South Korea — all have a stake in this.

But the reality is that the U.S. and North Korea have history, starting with the Korean War in the early 1950s, to the nearly 40,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea as you read this.

Without clear, decisive U.S. diplomacy, the ball has been left in China's court to cajole North Korea into more discussions. You hear a lot of complaints these days about China's growing influence. Well, the U.S. gave this one away.

Finally — and stop me if you've heard this — but why years of foot-dragging with a country that the CIA says has WMD, those Weapons of Mass Destruction we couldn't find in Iraq?

It gets more complicated. South Korea's President now says he will never authorize a war (read: a U.S. attack) on North Korea. So scrap that plan for a surgical strike against the North Korean nuclear sites — assuming we could now find them.

But here's the scenario that many Asians fear is driving US policy: the Cheney/Rumsfeld plan that if we could knock off North Korea's leader and top military structure, the place would somehow change overnight. Maybe we do it with the military. Maybe we isolate them economically. Pick your poison.

Once we do it (goes the theory) democracy will burst out like flowers greeting liberating soldiers.

Sorry, but a lot of people here in Asia don't buy it. They see millions of refugees fleeing into China and South Korea. They see competing North Korean military factions (maybe some with nukes) fighting it out in a civil war. They see chaos.

North Korea is a cancer that, from the first days of the Bush Administration, has been ignored. Back burner stuff, behind Iraq.

Guess what happens when you have a cancer ... and ignore it.

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