US-Korea deal ends on a bali-bali high

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2008, 12:00am

The Koreans have a special phrase for it. Bali-bali means 'quick! quick!', as in 'get it done yesterday!'

The upside of bali-bali from the South Korean experience is that it has powered the country's economy into perhaps one of the world's top dozen. But the downside, as South Koreans also view it, is that haste does often make waste; hurry sometimes gets you nowhere; and slapdash can make for mishmash. This country, after all, groans about its collapsing bridges and crumbling department stores - all due to an excess of contractor bali-bali.

The bali-bali concept, by the way, is one of the countless helpful insights into modern South Korea provided in a deeply informed and informative new book, Changing Korea: Understanding Culture and Communication. This important new study hit my desk just as I was trying to put some perspective on the latest turn in the twisty saga of the US versus Axis of Evil charter member North Korea.

You may recall that the Bush administration spent much of its first term bad-mouthing North Korea, trying to isolate it and claiming communists could not be trusted in negotiations.

And then came the Iraq-invasion swamp and the rise to prominent possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. With that, suddenly it made sense for the US to think the unthinkable, talk to the untalkable and actually negotiate with the North Korean commies. Fortunately, Beijing put together the six-party talks.

Those on-again, off-again talks more or less made up part two of the North Korean saga: the Bush administration was able to use them to realise its desire to leave office with the diplomatic victory of all but denuclearising North Korea. So they put the project on bali-bali status. Thus, suddenly, it was all action.

Finally released by bali-bali Bush from the isolation of a diplomatic Guantanamo erected by the neo-cons, the State Department shifted into high gear. Led by one of its most gifted negotiators - Christopher Hill - the US began to derive value from the six-party talks structure.

North Korea is not a particularly fun or fulsome conversationalist, but with China giving its negotiators dirty looks from time to time, it began weighing the potential cost of silence. More talking between Washington and Pyongyang then erupted in Berlin, where more progress was made. Then there was the sound of sweet music in the North Korean capital: the stunning visit of the New York Philharmonic at the tail end of its Asian swing.

Step by step, it began to come together. And so, Pyongyang recently presented - in Beijing, fittingly enough - the prize package of nuclear documents to Washington. They are said to reveal its feared, secret plutonium projects that it promises to terminate.

To South Koreans, perhaps, the sudden action might seem to coincide with the growing realisation in Washington that, in little more than half a year, the Bush administration will be history. If ever there was a time for bali-bali, this was therefore it: time was a-wasting.

Tom Plate is a member of the Burkle Centre on International Relations at UCLA and the Pacific Council on International Policy