Wed, 23 Jul 2003

Blair supports Seoul's stance

The Korea Herald, Asia News Network, Seoul

South Korea was freshly encouraged to settle the North Korean nuclear issue through multilateral dialogue and diplomacy when British Prime Minister Tony Blair supported Seoul's position in his talks with President Roh Moo-hyun Sunday.

While South Korea should appreciate Blair's inclusion of Seoul on his Asian tour to discuss the North Korean nuclear question, Britain's influence is limited. The British leader himself stressed that the nations most directly involved, namely the United States, Japan, China and Russia, must cooperate to persuade North Korea to stop its nuclear adventure.

Unfortunately, Blair's latest Asian swing is ill-timed, though perhaps he hoped that it would provide a respite from the high pressure criticism he faces over still missing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The suicide last week of a Ministry of Defense scientist, David Kelly, involved in a dispute between the BBC and Blair's government over alleged intelligence manipulation has embroiled him in the worst political crisis.

Kelly was once a UN weapons inspector in Iraq; the BBC has identified him as the source of its accusations that the Blair government lied about the Iraqi WMD threat. It appears that the weight of his knowledge about that deceit was unbearable, driving him to kill himself. Coupled with the current controversy in Washington over President Bush's unsubstantiated claim of Iraq buying uranium in Africa, the incident proved how easily officials can modify intelligence.

We cannot remain aloof on how the two embarrassed allied leaders digest the information that influences their policies on a confirmed WMD producer on our side of the globe. The North Korean nuclear weapons program is peculiar because the regime itself is a major source of information, with the competitive Western press always ready to prominently feature Pyongyang's revelations.

Information on North Korea's clandestine nuclear development program comes from two major channels. One is Seoul's intelligence apparatuses, which rely chiefly on human resources, including defectors, and electronic eavesdropping. The other is the vast U.S. intelligence-gathering network which employs myriad state-of-the-art photography and listening devices.

Officials closely coordinate and share information, but discrepancies occur, giving rise to policy differences. The media is a factor yet again, for it sometimes publicizes long held information, leading the international press to excitedly report on the "revelation." Recently, Yongdeok-dong -- it is old news that North Korea conducts high-explosive tests there -- appeared on page one.

We have seen a war fought on false claims, which the media failed to debunk because of its limited access to intelligence or lack of efforts. A crisis is in progress on the Korean Peninsula, and a war may or may not break out, depending on how governments interpret and act on intelligence about the North's nuclear- related activities.

The media's role as the guardians of fact is more important now than ever as a diplomatic framework is being prepared to solve the North Korean nuclear issue through dialogue, not force. Blair's visit highlights this crucial press role.