David H. Hackworth
June 28, 1994


OSAN, South Korea -- Forty-three years ago, not far from here, a North Korean bullet parted my hair. Back then, during the Korean War, the rice paddies were killing fields. The recently defused crisis with North Korea had most Koreans thinking about that terrible war.

By 1953, when the bombing had stepped on this Florida-size peninsula, both Koreas looked like burned, twisted waffles, and 4 million names were on the casualty list. Today, it's hard to find a paddy amidst the buildings, L.A.-style freeways and 43 million South Koreans who climbed out of shell-wracked ghettos and built a modern, prosperous country.

Bill Clinton's fumbling foreign affairs team blew it big time concerning North Korea's refusal to prove it wasn't building a bomb. The war pot had almost boiled over by the time Jimmy Carter turned down the heat.

Carter's "miracle" caused people all over this land to let out a collective sigh of relief. North Korea's aged leader, Kim Il Sung, has confirmed in writing to Clinton what he told Carter face to face: that he'll let inspectors do their thing and stop his nuclear brinkmanship.

Only time will tell if he keeps his word. Kim's nose is longer than Pinocchio's. He has a half-century record of lying and double-dealing. In June 1950, he suggested a Korea- wide vote on unification, and while the South was pondering his offer, he launched a massive invasion that he and Joseph Stalin had been planning for months.

Talking is better than fighting a war that wouldn't be Desert Storm-easy and would cause more destruction man Korean War I; and this time around, the bloodbath wouldn't be limited to Korea.

The problem, before Jimmy Carter cooled things off, was that Clinton's "best and brightest" foreign-policy quarterbacks -- the same guys who dropped the ball in Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti -- had again backed themselves into a corner. Without Carter as referee, their next play would have been sanctions, probably kicking off Korean War II.

As anyone who's climbed these Korean hills knows, sanctions wouldn't have worked. The Chinese-Korean border, an isolated and rugged spot I visited in 1950 courtesy of Harry Truman's "police action," stretches along the Yulu River for almost 400 miles. Even if the Chinese stopped shipping goodies and installed a military force to stop the $1 billion annual trade, stuff would gush across the porous border like water out of a fire hose. Back in the 1980s, when China and North Korea were not kissing cousins, smuggling couldn't be stopped even by China's huge army.

Many South Koreans feel Washington's heavy-handed approach almost triggered a war. A South Korean told me, "Before President Carter's visit, Pyongyang believed that Washington was trying to throttle them."

Everyone here --both South Koreans and Americans -- seems thrilled that Carter's visit has cooled off Washington's dumb war talk. Many of Clinton's cronies who complained Carter had been duped are now doing some serious hat-eating.

Clinton's foreign affairs people are very bright academics, but few have been to Korea. Fewer still listen to the people who know Korea, and like most smart guys, not many are street wise. Most, like intellectuals Strobe Talbott and Tony Lake, follow a script prepared by eggheads whose knowledge of Korea comes only through books and think tanks filled with more brainy, seldom-get-it-right whiz kids.

Clinton must clean up his foreign affairs act before he stumbles the nation into a mess from which there's no retreat. He should start by sending a platoon of his Rhodes Scholars back to their ivy towers and replacing them with hands-on, experienced people.

As part of the much needed shake-up, he'd be wise to make Jimmy Carter his roving ambassador in much the same role that JFK used Averell Harriman. Better yet, he should fire the ever-cautious, super smart lawyer, Warren Christopher, and replace him with the man from Georgia. Let's face it—Carter saved the day for this part of the world and the 36,000 American troops who are here, leaning forward in their fox-holes, wondering how our U.S. foreign policy ever got into the hand of such high I.Q.'d fools.