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Writer Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof, editorial columnist for The New York Times, discusses the North Korea crisis. He has covered North and South Korea off and on since 1986. He's served as the Times bureau chief in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo. He was co-recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his coverage of the Chinese crackdown on protesters at Tiananmen Square. In a column which appeared in the Times on February 4, 2003, he wrote, "The North Korean nuclear crisis is far more perilous than many people realize.


Other segments from the episode on February 13, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 13, 2003: Interview with Nicholas Kristof; Commentary on the word "gallic."


DATE February 13, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Nicholas Kristof on the nuclear crisis in North Korea

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As we brace for war with Iraq, we also face a crisis with North Korea. North
Korea has started up an old nuclear reactor that can produce plutonium for
nuclear weapons, and has removed spent nuclear fuel rods from storage.
Yesterday the UN's chief nuclear arms inspector declared North Korea in
non-compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation agreement, and said the
country posed a major security threat. The International Atomic Energy Agency
voted to bring the North Korea issue to the UN Security Council. Also
yesterday, CIA director George Tenet said that North Korea was likely to
process the spent nuclear fuel from its reactor, which would provide it with
enough plutonium for several additional nuclear weapons. The CIA estimates
that North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs, as well as a missile
that could possibly reach the West Coast of America.

My guest, Nicholas Kristof, is a columnist for The New York Times. He's
covered both North and South Korea on and off since 1986. He's been The Times
bureau chief in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo. I asked Kristof about the
importance of bringing this issue of North Korea to the international

Mr. NICHOLAS KRISTOF (The New York Times): Well, I think we have to do
something. There's this sense that North Korea is marching toward turning
itself into a plutonium factory in a really dangerous way, and the
administration doesn't really know what to do, and it doesn't want to talk to
the North Koreans, and this is one way of trying to engineer some kind of
international reaction, then later bringing international pressure through the
Security Council and maybe economic sanctions. And also just to show
domestically that, hey, it's doing something, so that when people like me
write that it should be doing more it can say, `Hey, we're doing something.'

GROSS: The next step is the UN Security Council. What is the UN Security
Council likely to do? What are its options?

Mr. KRISTOF: First off, the Security Council will, you know, express, you
know, serious concern, this kind of thing. It'll, you know, pursue some kind
of diplomatic language and wring its hands in kind of a very international
diplomatic way, but I don't think it'll actually take specific action the
first time around. Then somewhat later, maybe a month later, maybe more, I
think there is gonna be real pressure for economic sanctions, and there'll be
a vigorous debate about that, because I think a lot of the international
community will want to go that route. North Korea will warn that if we do,
that'll be an act of war, and South Korea is very likely to be dead set
against it, and China is gonna have a lot of reservations as well.

GROSS: Russia has threatened to vote against sanctions on the grounds that it
could worsen North Korea's reaction.

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. I mean, one of the problems is that, you know, I think
everybody is concerned about North Korea developing a lot of nuclear weapons
and the potential for selling them all over the world, but anything that puts
pressure on it is gonna create real risk, especially for all the neighbors.
You know, China's terrified that North Korea's gonna collapse, among other
things. South Korea's worried both that it's gonna, you know, explode and
also that it's gonna implode. Japan is worried, I think quite legitimately,
that the first reaction of any kind of North Korean dictator when times get
tough is to send a missile off to Tokyo. So for all the neighbors, there is a
real concern about putting too much pressure on North Korea, even though they
do share our long-term goal of, you know, keeping it nuclear free.

GROSS: North Korea says that it could interpret sanctions as a declaration of
war. Why would North Korea interpret sanctions as a declaration of war?

Mr. KRISTOF: A lot of that is probably bluster. No country is better than
just saying outrageous things than North Korea. And they get a lot of
leverage that way. I mean, they make us all really genuinely nervous about
sanctions, and they are so unpredictable and so rash that it is indeed quite
plausible. But my bet is that they're already so isolated that if there were
sanctions that were applied but really didn't make a huge difference, and they
probably wouldn't, then North Korea would, you know, not launch a war that
would be suicidal. One reason why they would probably not be hugely affected
by sanctions is that I think China is gonna be very reluctant to really apply
them vigorously, and that China-North Korean border is a porous one through
which people, food, everything else goes, and I don't think China's gonna want
to close that off.

GROSS: And it looks like the Bush administration doesn't want to negotiate a
deal with North Korea independently because why?

Mr. KRISTOF: President Bush is concerned and I mean it's a perfectly
legitimate concern about rewarding bad behavior, and, you know, he's concerned
about being blackmailed by the North. I mean, I think we should be
negotiating, but I do have to confess, you know, it really is in many ways
like blackmail, and North Korea has a long history of this. They warn
that--you know, they start some outrageous project, nuclear or whatever else,
and then demand a payoff unless, you know--or they'll keep it up. And so I
think it's a perfectly legitimate concern, it's just that the alternatives are
even worse.

GROSS: What does North Korea want?

Mr. KRISTOF: There's a big debate about that right now. There are some North
Korea experts who say North Korea basically just wants a deal with the West,
and especially with the US. It wants some kind of a peace treaty with the US,
it wants Western investment, Western loans, normalization of relations, this
kind of thing, and it's willing to trade away its missiles and its nuclear
program to get that. And that's perfectly plausible. Kim Jong Il has shown a
real interest in getting that.

The other theory is that, you know, basically North Korea wants nuclear
weapons, and since the 1950s it's been trying to get them, and you know, maybe
it's willing at times to trade them away for a really great deal. But, you
know, fundamentally it wants nukes.

My own sense is that they're both true, that it's not just developing nukes to
trade them away, that it really does genuinely want them, and now watching
what happens to Iraq because it doesn't have nukes, it wants them even more.
But it also does want relations with the US and is willing to give up quite a
bit to get them.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times columnist
Nicholas Kristof. He's covered North and South Korea off and on for many
years dating back to 1986. Since 1986 he's served as Hong Kong bureau chief,
Beijing bureau chief and Tokyo bureau chief.

You've warned in your New York Times column several times that the North
Korean nuclear crisis is more perilous than many people realize. Why?

Mr. KRISTOF: Because I think almost any outcome is really terrifying. I
mean, one outcome is that they simply ramp up their nuclear program and go
full speed toward developing, you know, every mechanism to get more nuclear
weapons and missiles to deliver them. And in a few months they'll have
another five or six nuclear weapons. Within a few years they'll be turning
out 60 a year. And the way they make money is to sell weapons. I mean, that,
I think, in terms of proliferation, who they could sell them to, that's an
absolutely terrifying prospect.

But partly because it's so terrifying, I think there's a good chance, maybe a
growing chance, since we're unwilling to talk to the North Koreans, that we're
gonna solve it in other ways, which is with a military strike on the Yongbyon
nuclear plant sometime in the late spring or summer and, you know, that may
work brilliantly. It may solve the problem. But there's a very good chance
that it'll start a new Korean war. And a Korean war would be in order of
magnitude different from anything we might encounter in Iraq. A Pentagon
study suggested that you could have a million people die in another Korean
war. I mean, it's--North Korea not only has a couple of nuclear weapons, we
believe, also it has 5,000 tons of sarin nerve gas, it may have smallpox. It
has a huge armed forces, more than a million fighters. The prospect of that
kind of a war is just completely terrifying.

GROSS: Play out that scenario for us. You say a million people might die.
Where would those million people be living?

Mr. KRISTOF: The real problem with a Korean war is that Seoul is right up
next to the border with North Korea. It's only about 30 miles from the
border. So a plane flying from North Korea can get to Seoul in just a few
minutes. Then you have artillery all along the border dug into the hillsides,
so it's very difficult for the US to get rid of it, and that artillery can
reach Seoul. And if they have artillery shells with things like sarin nerve
gas, and so while the southern end of the peninsula could escape and indeed,
you know, North Korea would lose this kind of war, but in the process they can
destroy Seoul and turn it into what they brag about is a sea of flames, and
they can do that. And so I think that's why the administration has been very
reluctant to move toward that kind of an approach, a military strike. But I
think that logic of where they're going--and you kind of hear bits of it from
Washington--that that is kind of where things may be headed.

GROSS: What is the logic of North Korea destroying part of South Korea when
South Korea is pretty lukewarm toward the United States right now? Lukewarm
at best. It's the United States that North Korea would really be antagonistic
to, so why destroy South Korea?

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah, ab--well, partly really because they can't reach the US.
Now they can reach Japan, and indeed kind of a compromised measure would be
that they would send a few missiles into Tokyo. One of the fundamental
questions is: If we strike, if we have a surgical military strike on the
Yongbyon reactor or just on the reprocessor within that reactor facility, then
how will North Korea react? And I think the Pentagon, the hawks at least,
they bet that if we use a very, very surgical strike, you know, one or two
cruise missiles, just a few cruise missiles, that then North Korea will just
sit and accept it rather than risk a suicidal war.

On the other hand, there are a lot of, you know, North Korean defectors, a lot
of South Koreans who think that at that point, pride is so critical for the
North Korean regime, for the legitimacy of Kim Jong Il, that he will have to
respond in a major way, and that if he thinks that he is losing his military
strength, that he wants to use it before he loses it, and that he would
unleash a second Korean war. And indeed, that compromised scenario is that he
would lob a few missiles into Japan and that would show that he's, you know,
responding, that he's strong, but would be somewhat less likely to start a new
war that he would lose.

GROSS: You know, trying to figure out where pride comes into this for Kim
Jong Il, I mean trying to psychoanalyze him in any way and figure out what his
move would be strikes me as probably a very difficult thing to do.

Mr. KRISTOF: It is, and it's fascinating to look at what intelligence
analysts have said about Kim Jong Il over the years. You know, for years and
years and years you would get these incredibly lurid tales of Kim Jong Il and
these fast cars and these Swedish blondes who were imported and living in
Pyongyang and these S&M videotapes, and just, you know, it was the most
incredibly interesting intel that ever arose from anywhere in the world. And
then really just a few years ago, you know, intel community began to kind of
calm down and people began to say, you know, actually, you know, he's a pretty
smart, shrewd guy, Kim Jong Il, and he may have this playboy side to him, but
the word coming out from defectors is that he, well, was a pretty good
negotiator and, indeed, North Korea did seem to manage us pretty well and
managed to get us in a pickle pretty well, and that he's--you know, he watches
CNN and this kind of thing. And so a much more kind of nuanced version of
reality started to come out. But we're an awful long way from understanding
that guy.

GROSS: My guest is Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times who
has covered North and South Korea. We'll talk more after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Nicholas Kristof is my guest. He's a columnist for The New York
Times. He's covered North and South Korea off and on since 1986. He's served
as The Times bureau chief in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo.

So let's just sum up what the options are that the Bush administration has.
If the Bush administration decides to bomb the nuclear program in Pyongyang,
that would be seen as a declaration of war. North Korea has said sanctions
would be interpreted as a declaration of war. So what are the options here?

Mr. KRISTOF: There are basically three options and, you know, they're
variations on each, but--and one is to try to negotiate, and that might or
might not work. But my sense is it'd be worth trying, and I think the State
Department--you get the sense that Colin Powell and Richard Armitage would
very much like to pursue that. Second alternative is to maybe go to sanctions
that aren't terribly effective, maybe to, you know, deplore what's going on
but really not do anything very effective and hope that North Korea collapses
of its own weight pretty soon, and just let North Korea go ahead with its
nuclear program. A few months ago there were some hints from the
administration that was kind of gonna be its strategy, that it thought that a
strike was impossible and that negotiation was impossible, so we would just
kind of let North Korea go ahead. Now the third possibility is a military
strike, and I think that momentum is headed very slightly in that direction,
and, you know, it's a gamble because it might work brilliantly in the sense
that North Korea might not respond, or it might work catastrophically with a
new Korean war.

GROSS: How do you think the preparations for war in Iraq is affecting the
Bush administration response to North Korea?

Mr. KRISTOF: I think that it's affecting it in the sense that the top levels
of the US government really can't do things simultaneously. They can't deal
with more than one crisis at the same time. You know, the Pentagon likes to
say that they can fight two wars simultaneously. Maybe it can, but the White
House can't focus on two major crises at the same time. Yesterday one person
who'd been in government for a long time said, you know, that government can
walk and chew gum at the same time, but it chews very slowly and walks very
slowly. And I think that that's fundamentally the problem, that the cost of
the preparations for Iraq has been that we haven't paid attention to North
Korea. I think the administration really blew it in the fall when they didn't
focus and they thought that North Korea would back down, and in fact, it was
pretty clear to most North Korea experts that North Korea was more likely, if
people weren't paying attention, to just kind of up the ante and make sure
that they were heard. And, indeed, that's what happened.

GROSS: Sometimes it almost sounds like North Korea keeps upping the ante and
saying, `Hey, look, this could be a big war, you know. A million people could
die. Hello. Are you listening?'

Mr. KRISTOF: That's exactly what it is. That's exactly it. Because we cut
off the fuel oil supplies to North Korea, and its economy is very dependent on
that kind of energy. So from North Korea's point of view, the present
situation really isn't a great one, and so it wants to get some kind of a new
major package deal with the US, and that would involve new sources of energy,
it would involve investment, loans, normalization, that kind of thing. And it
has discovered that the way, you know--its leveraged to get that kind of a
deal is to do things that are really dangerous and wacky. And, you know, one
of those was to crank up its nuclear program again, and it did that. I think
the next way it's gonna do that is gonna be to remind us that it has missiles
that can reach a long way, so it's likely to announce that a resumption of its
missile tests and, indeed, probably to fire off a Taepodong missile off into
the Pacific. In can also ratchet tensions up by announcing formally that it
is a nuclear state. You know, it can always, you know, fire a machine gun
across the border a little bit and, you know, sink the South Korean stock
market and the Tokyo stock market. There are all kinds of things it can do to
put a lot of pressure on to make sure that we won't just forget about it.

GROSS: Now President Bush has made it clear that he didn't want to have the
kind of deal with North Korea that the Clinton administration did. He thought
the Clinton administration kind of let itself be blackmailed by North Korea.
President Bush's father, the first President Bush, faced a crisis with North
Korea in 1989. What was that crisis about and how did the first President
Bush deal with it?

Mr. KRISTOF: There were indeed indications earlier that North Korea was
developing nuclear--had a nuclear program and was working toward nuclear
weapons, and the first President Bush dealt with it essentially the way
everybody else, until this administration, which is to try to offer
inducements to North Korea to behave better, even if that does risk rewarding
bad behavior. So the first President Bush withdrew nuclear weapons from the
South. He canceled military exercises that were always a big source of
contention on the Korean peninsula. And there were hints he started up talks
between the US and North Korea on a very, very low level in Beijing, and this
was precisely an effort to try to create a dialogue with the North Koreans and
to, you know, create some kind of environment where we could do some kind of a
package deal with them.

GROSS: You had said earlier that North Korea hasn't announced formally that
it's a nuclear state, that it might make that announcement. North Korea
hasn't acknowledged that it's a nuclear state?

Mr. KRISTOF: They, in fact, deny it. They say that they're, you know, trying
to develop peaceful nuclear power, that they started up their reactor in
Yongbyon to get power. In fact, that is complete hocus-pocus. I'm told that
the power lines at Yongbyon actually aren't connected to the electrical grid
in North Korea at all, so it's for nuclear power, but they don't acknowledge

GROSS: Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. He'll be back
in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof describes his
travels through North Korea, and explains why he thinks it's an even more
repressive country than Iraq. The disagreement over Iraq between the US and
France has led to a lot of French bashing here. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg,
has been listening in.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Nicholas Kristof, a
columnist for The New York Times. He's covered North and South Korea on and
off since 1986. He served as The Times' bureau chief in Hong Kong, Beijing
and Tokyo. Let's pick up where we left off.

Would you compare--you've been both to Iraq and North Korea.

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah, I mean...

GROSS: Go ahead.

Mr. KRISTOF: North Korea is the, you know, only place in the world that makes
Iraq look like a liberal democracy. You know, Iraq is an incredibly brutal
and repressive place but, you know, it's basically a country where you get
people coming in and going out and people, you know, listen to foreign radio.
I mean, they even listen to Israeli radio, which just surprised me, in Iraq.
And there is information that does get around. People are willing to say in
whispers when nobody else is listening what they do think of the government.

North Korea is just a world apart. North Korea is incomparably the most
Stalinist country that has ever existed in history. If you're a North Korean,
you can't travel from one place to another without permission. You can't live
in Pyongyang, the capital, without permission. You have to wear your badge
every moment. People are categorized into categories of loyalty. There's a
speaker in every house that dishes out propaganda from the government from
morning to evening. You know, it is incomparably more repressive and more
rigid than any other country I've ever been to or imagined. Incomparably more
repressive than Russia under Stalin, for example.

GROSS: What are some of the things you're likely to hear on the speaker that
you're obliged to leave in your house and leave turned on 24 hours a day?

Mr. KRISTOF: Actually North Korea has great propaganda in that sense. You
know, it's better than all the sort of boring propaganda that a lot of
communist countries put out. North Korea's is, you know, this sort of hair on
the chest stuff about the American war maniacs and their South Korean puppets,
and how they're threatening war and, you know, it's always sort of fabricating
ridiculous charges. And then the hagiography about Kim Jong Il and his father
Kim Il Sung is again just the greatest, you know, stuff to listen to, at least
if you're not a North Korean. I mean, it's incredibly amusing if you're a

Periodically there are always reports about supernatural phenomena. I mean,
my favorite was the--I think it was the white sea anemone, an albino sea
anemone that came to shore and found a fisherman's net to be caught in so that
it could celebrate Kim Jong Il's accession to power.


Mr. KRISTOF: You have flowers that are blooming in midwinter to celebrate Kim
Jong Il's birthday, this kind of thing. So you get this kind of propaganda
and kind of cele--you know, in many ways it's really like going to a religious
state, you know, some kind of a medieval theocracy. And Kim Jong Il, you
know, is the god, and so you get all this kind of religious sort of worshipful
praise of him. And that's very much the tone of what is going on. And
heretics are executed, of course, which, you know, makes the parallel a little
closer as well. And this just booms into people from, you know, morning--it
wakes them up in the morning and then it puts them to sleep at night.

GROSS: And apparently disabled people are exiled.

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. I had heard that before I went to North Korea, that
disabled people were not allowed in Pyongyang because they kind of marred the
image of the city, that they just gave a bad impression of, you know, the one
place that foreigners were likely to go to. And so the whole time I was in
Pyongyang, I was kind of rushing around trying desperately to try and find
anybody, you know, who was missing an arm or a leg, who was blind or anything.
And there weren't any. And I asked the authorities, you know, where they
were, and they insisted, `Well, there aren't any because they voluntarily
moved to other parts of the country.' But, you know, again, it just
underscores the incredibly rigid control that the government has over
absolutely everything that goes on.

GROSS: So in your opinion, North Korea is even a more rigid and bizarre place
to live than Iraq. How would you compare the risks that North Korea and Iraq
pose for the rest of the world?

Mr. KRISTOF: I think that they both pose risks, but I think that the North
Korean risk is considerably greater, certainly for Americans. Now part of
that is that Iraq, I think, probably does have weapons of mass destruction,
but that's mainly chemicals and biological agents. And it doesn't have any
good way of delivering them. It's, you know, experimented, it's tried. But
as far as we know, it doesn't have any good way of delivering them with shells
or with missiles or with other mechanisms. And certainly it doesn't have
anything that can get very far.

On the other hand, North Korea has those chemicals and those biological agents
in huge quantities. I mean, 5,000 tons of sarin nerve gas, just vast amounts
of anthrax. We believe it has smallpox. And it also has ways of delivering
them. It has perfected ways of putting them in shells so that they can, you
know, be delivered through artillery or through missiles. And North Korea
also has a long-range ballistic missile program. Its Nodong missiles can
reach Japan with no difficulty, and its latest missile, the Taepodong-2, could
reach Alaska or Hawaii and deliver a warhead to those places. And in a
three-stage version, it could probably reach at least the West Coast and
perhaps further inland, depending on the size of the warhead. And as we know,
I mean, it does have nukes and we don't know where those existing nuclear
warheads are hidden, so we can't remove them.

So it seems to me that both in terms of what they have in terms of weapons of
mass destruction and in terms of their ways of delivering them to us, North
Korea is a much more frightening place than Iraq. And, you know, North Korea
also has a legacy of involvement in terrorism, although it's been some years.
That was back in the 1980s and earlier. And the fact that if any war erupts,
then we've got a hundred thousand US troops in the region who will be

GROSS: If North Korea sells nuclear materials or other weapons of mass
destruction to terrorist groups, do you think it would be for ideological
reasons or primarily for the money?

Mr. KRISTOF: I think for the money. I think North Korea is really less and
less ideological all the time. There were some fascinating taped
conversations between Kim Jong Il and a couple of people who he'd actually
kidnapped from the South years ago, and those tapes were then brought out by
them to the West. And they suggest that Kim Jong Il really doesn't
particularly believe in communism. I mean, he knows that it's not an
effective way to get an economy going. He's clearly tried at various points
to initiate economic reform. He's also very nervous, though, about the
political consequences of that, and I think that that is kind of what he's
balancing. He wants to stay on top, he likes this kind of traditional system
of being a divine king. And yet he also wants the economy to grow. And it's
very hard to figure out how to reconcile those two. But I don't think at this
point that he is an ideologue. I think that he's very, very practical and is
out to make money.

GROSS: Some experts have said that the Bush administration came to the White
House with the agenda already in place of taking out Saddam Hussein. Do you
think the Bush administration had any agenda regarding North Korea when it
came to the White House?

Mr. KRISTOF: No, I think not nearly to the same degree. I think, though,
that the administration has a very strong sense, you know, that policies
should be, you know, ABC, anything but Clinton, policies. And there was a
strong sense that the 1994 agreed framework under the Clinton administration
had not worked very well, that it had meant giving in to blackmail. And so I
think there was a real distaste for that agreed framework. And indeed maybe
that would have fallen apart even if the North had not cheated on the nuclear
program. So I think that where President Bush and the White House came in was
not so much a determination to remove Kim Jong Il in the way that there were
some people determined to remove Saddam, but rather a real distaste for the
regime in North Korea and a distaste for dialogue and for concessions.

GROSS: In examining how the Bush administration is reacting to the threat of
Iraq and the threat of North Korea, some people say, `Well, the Bush
administration is doing the right thing for each of the countries. Each
country demands its own unique response.' And other people are saying the
Bush administration is being very hypocritical in preparing for war with Iraq,
which isn't nearly as much of a threat as North Korea is and doing very little
with North Korea.

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. I'd say that there definitely is a certain hypocrisy
there because Iraq, I think, is less of a threat than North Korea. On the
other hand, in fairness, I mean, hypocrisy is kind of what governments do at
times in foreign affairs when the choices are bad. And, you know, officials
have a point. I mean, they privately say, `Look, Saddam is a government that
we can overthrow, and North Korea is one that, however distasteful, if we try
to overthrow it, I mean, you will have another Korean War and you will have
hundreds and hundreds of thousands of casualties. And so there is a
difference and a reason to treat them differently.

And, I mean, I have problems with the government's approach to both Iraq and
North Korea. But I do have to acknowledge that it is understandable why one
would go for Iraq rather than North Korea, just based on how they can respond.

GROSS: My guest is Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times who
has covered North and South Korea. We'll talk more after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Nicholas Kristof is my guest. He's a columnist for The New York
Times. He's covered North and South Korea on and off since 1986. He's been
The Times' bureau chief in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo.

Let's look at President Bush's relationship with the new president of South
Korea, who actually takes office in late February, Roh Moo-hyun. Why is there
so much tension now between the Bush administration and the newly elected
president of South Korea?

Mr. KRISTOF: There's a fundamental dispute about how to handle North Korea.
The South Korean government, both the outgoing government of Kim Dae-jung and
the new government of Roh Moo-hyun, they think that engagement is the way to
go. And they think that just the worst possible solution would be a military
strike on Yongbyon because they would be the ones at risk. And the Bush
administration thinks that the, you know, worst way to go is engagement
because you're rewarding people for doing bad things. And, you know, there
are certainly voices in the administration who think that a military strike
may eventually be the way to go. So there is a complete disjunction in terms
of what the two administrations see as the relevant options. And, you know,
it's coupled just by--within South Korea there is, I think, a growing kind of
distaste for the US. There's resentment at the US military presence there.
It hasn't often been handled very well either by the South Koreans or by the
US. And I think that we're now paying the price for it.

GROSS: How strong is anti-American feeling now in South Korea?

Mr. KRISTOF: It's really mixed, and a lot of it is age-dependent. Among
older people you get tremendous warmth often toward American--people who
remember the Korean War or grew up in its aftermath and feel a tremendous
respect for the US. Among younger people, I'd say there's a growing
nationalism, a growing assertiveness. People think that, you know, South
Korea's now an industrialized country and they want more respect. And they
resent it when they see US forces running around South Korea, taking up prime
real estate, committing in some cases crimes and, in their view, not being
punished for it adequately.

One constant source of tension is that the US troops are disproportionately
male and a lot of them date Korean women, which creates tremendous anger and
resentment among a lot of young Korean men. So I think there are a lot--and
also I think a lot of young South Koreans just really don't see North Korea as
a threat and, I mean, they think the prime risk comes from the US presence
there triggering some kind of a conflagration. So you get a lot of mixed-up
reasons, but among young people, kind of a real lack of appreciation for the
US military presence and, I think, a growing distaste for it.

GROSS: Is the new president of South Korea thinking seriously about
reunification with the North?

Mr. KRISTOF: I don't think so. I think that it's an aspiration of all
Koreans as sort of a slogan that people have always been raised on, but after
they watch the German reunification, they became terrified about just the cost
of it. And so I think that, you know, they want, you know, reunification but
not yet. And their main concern--I had a fascinating meeting with Roh
Moo-hyun, the new president, in which he made clear that his real fear is not
North Korean attack as such but rather a US military strike on the Yongbyon
facility, which would lead to a broader war.

GROSS: You've made it clear that you have criticisms of the Bush
administration in its handling of Iraq and North Korea. I'm just interested
in hearing your opinion about what you think the Bush administration should be
doing on those fronts.

Mr. KRISTOF: On North Korea, I think that's it's critical that we start a
negotiation as soon as possible. If the administration wants diplomatic cover
to do so and to, you know, pretend it's not changing its position, then the
best way to do that would be through an international conference involving,
you know, maybe the Chinese, the Russians, the Japanese, the South Koreans and
the US and North Korea. But, I mean, everybody will know that the key
dialogue there is going to be between North Korea and the US, and North Korea
would have to give up its nuclear program in entirety. It would have to
consent to some degree of verification, inspectors, this kind of thing. And
then the US would offer normalization of relations, loans from the Asian
Development Bank, trade, an end to economic sanctions.

And it seems to me that one important element of this is these are things we
should be doing on our own. I mean, this is the way to bring down North
Korea, is precisely to engage it, to send Western businessmen and women over
there. You know, this is the most isolated country in the world and that is
precisely why it has managed to keep Kim Jong Il in power, and now if Kim Jong
Il wants Western contact, which is precisely what is most dangerous to him, I
think we should hand it to him.

GROSS: And Saddam Hussein?

Mr. KRISTOF: And Saddam Hussein. I think that--I mean, Saddam worries me,
but I think that a war worries me even more in terms of the potential downside
throughout the region. I mean, one of my theories is that the first regime
change we could see would be in Jordan, not in Iraq, or you know, in Pakistan.
I think that after Saddam goes, that we'll have an enormous mess especially in
the south in the Shiite region. And so I think that containment is a viable
option just as we contained Iraq in the past, just as we contained Libya, just
as we contained Nasser's Egypt, for example, you know, both of which also had
weapons of mass destruction programs. And so I don't--I--I agree with the
diagnosis of all that is wrong with Saddam, but I don't buy the prescription,
and I think that containment is a better prescription.

GROSS: Nicholas Kristof, thank you very much, and safe travels to you.

Mr. KRISTOF: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. He's also
worked as The Times' bureau chief in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo.

Some Americans have been engaging in vigorous French bashing in reaction to
the French rift with the US over Iraq. Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg
considers the peculiar language of French bashing. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: As France continues to oppose the US policy on Iraq,
French bashing abounds in media publications

The resistance of some European nations to the Bush administration's position
on Iraq has provoked a torrent of anti-European commentary in the press, a
great deal of it directed at the French. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has
been listening to all the French bashing and the peculiar vocabulary that some
writers reserve for talking about the French.


As I read through recent commentaries on European responses to US policy on
Iraq, I keep running into the adjective `Gallic': `the great dismal fog of
Gallic anti-Americanism'; `the duplicities of Gallic diplomacy'; `Gallic
intransigeance on Iraq.' An Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times described
the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, as displaying a Gallic
insouciance to Colin Powell's presentation before the Security Council. And
at least three other columns describe the French reaction to the speech as a
Gallic shrug.

It's an odd word, one of a handful of fanciful adjectives, like Hibernian for
the Irish, Caledonian for the Scots and Teutonic for the Germans, words that
journalists keep handy to conjure up a familiar national stereotype. The
cluster of nouns that gravitate toward Gallic suggest a mix of infatuation and
exasperation that the French always invoke for us. Phrases like `Gallic
charm' and `Gallic flair' are paired with `Gallic rudeness' and `Gallic
arrogance' and, of course, those `Gallic shrugs,' a phrase that turns up
almost 700 times in the Nexis newspaper databases. And then, there's `Gallic
logic.' As far as I can tell, the French are the only people we credit with
having a national logic of their own.

But one way or another, `Gallic' always goes with character traits. You don't
see people talking about Gallic aircraft carriers or Gallic pharmaceutical
companies. According to Edward Knox, a professor at Middlebury who's studied
the way France is reported in the American press, `Gallic' isn't really a
synonym for `French' at all. It's more like shorthand for `The French are at
it again.'

`Gallic' is just one of the special words that journalists have consecrated to
the French. In press stories, the French are always `fuming' about something
or other. And where other people `say' things, the French `sniff' them, as in
`"We were not informed of the decision," the minister sniffed.' In fact, the
adjective `sniffy' is another favorite here, and the French are described as
snooty even more often than the English are. In the American press, the
Frenchman is a character who's guided by his nose, whereas the German is a
character who's led by it.

Journalists have been dining out on these turns of phrase since Mark Twain's
time, but it's striking how readily they come up when the French are proving
obstinate over American policy. You don't often hear `Teutonic' used in the
same way to describe the Germans' reluctance to go along. Not long ago, The
London Times columnist Michael Gove suggested that the German's present
passivism grows out of a historic weakness in the German character of the same
sort that led to Hitlerism. But most Americans would see that as a stretch.
Whatever annoyance they may feel about the German position, they don't feel
the need to connect it to Colonel Klink.

One reason why journalists single out the French is just because they can.
The French happen to be one of the few European nationalities who don't have
an American constituency to look out for their interests. You wonder how
commentators would have reacted if the Italians had sided with the French and
the Germans in opposing American policy on Iraq. I doubt they'd be bringing
up the Italian reputation for military faintheartedness the way Representative
Peter King did with the French when he suggested that they could go to Baghdad
to instruct the Iraqis on how to surrender. And you can be sure that critics
wouldn't be throwing around epithets like `wops' and `dagos' the way they have
with `frogs.'

True, the French have an annoying habit of vaunting their sense of cultural
superiority to Americans, but the Italians, Germans and English have exactly
the same condescending attitude, though, as with the French, it's usually
mixed with a genuine affection for the engaging upstarts of the New World. If
there's a difference between the French and the others, it has more to do with
an ambivalence about the cachet that French culture still has in this country.
Often, you sense that the animus is directed less at the French than at
Francophiles, the people the right likes to describe as the Chablis and Brie
set. It brings to mind what Mark Twain said in "The Innocence Abroad" about
the Frenchified American he runs into in a Venice hotel, sporting a rose in
his buttonhole and calling Paris Paris (pronounced pah-REE). `Oh, it is
pitiable to see him making of himself a thing that is neither male nor female,
neither fish, flesh nor fowl, a poor, miserable, hermaphrodite Frenchman.'

You can hear that same disdain for the American Francophiles in a recent
National Review piece by the conservative columnist Victor Davis Hanson. As
he put it, `Heartland Americans, far from being deprived yokels, have a
clearer appreciation of the quite profound amorality in Europe than anybody in
the Ivy League.' But it was notable that Hanson couldn't get out of that
commentary without throwing in an indignant `mon dieu.' In fact, whenever you
see the word `Gallic' in his story, it's dollars to beignets it will be
followed by a phrase like `tete-a-tete' or `je ne sais quoi' or `vive la
difference' just so the writers can make it clear that they aren't deprived
yokels themselves.

As the critics of the French are always making a point of saying, `Believe me,
I've been there,' that's why French bashing is a perennially satisfying
exercise. It permits you to take a stick to the decadent European wussiness
of your compatriots while at the same time making a show of your own
cosmopolitan savoir faire. A pity the French are so given to Gallic
touchiness, or they'd see it all for the tribute it really is.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center and the
author of the book "The Way We Talk Now."

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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