Breakthrough in U.S.-North Korean Relations?

Next week’s visit to Washington of Vice Marshal Cho Myong Nok, the number three official in North Korea, and his meeting with President Clinton could be a significant turning point in U.S.-North Korean relations. As a result, the two countries may find themselves at the beginning of a real warming trend in bilateral relations after five decades of hostility.

Conventional wisdom has been that further efforts by the Clinton Administration to building better ties with Pyongyangƒthe poster child for rogue statesƒwould only expose the Democrats to ridicule during the presidential election. Nevertheless, the Administration had hoped the North would send a special envoy to Washington for further useful talks after former Secretary of Defense William Perry’s 1999 trip to Pyongyang. Attempts to schedule it dragged on for over a year with little prospect of success. But, in a startling about-face, Pyongyang is now moving forward.

Sending Vice Marshal Cho at this time is significant. The U.S. expected a lower-ranking envoy such as Kang Sok Ju, the Foreign Ministry official who negotiated the 1994 U.S.-North Korea agreement ending the nuclear crisis. Cho is more senior, closer to Kim Chong-il and a high-ranking officer in the North’s influential military. Moreover, his visit will coincide with the 55th anniversary of the Korean Worker’s Party on October 10, a major event in the North. This amounts to a clear demonstration by Chairman Kim that he is committed to better relations and wants to hear directly from the President of the United States and Secretary of State their proposals for improving bilateral ties.

Why is Pyongyang taking this step now? The North has been trying for some time to insure regime survival by improving relations with Washington. Recent overtures to South Koreaƒaside from seeking to lessen tensions and secure assistance for its ailing economyƒare also designed to turn Seoul into an ally in Chairman Kim’s quest to turn the U.S. into a friend. This is in stark contrast to the past when South Korea often stood in the way of better relations. Finally, the North may not fully understand U.S. domestic politics, but it does believe there are unfriendly hard liners called Republicans. By improving relations with South Korea and the current U.S. government, Pyongyang is taking out an insurance policy that will make it more difficult for a Republican Administration to adopt tougher policies.

Symbolism is important but so are practical results. One possible outcome is a joint statement highlighting respect for each other’s sovereignty, a mutual commitment to accelerate normalization and a pledge to address key security issues such as the North’s missile program, weapons of mass destruction and perhaps its conventional forces. In that context, it will be interesting to hear what Marshall Cho has to say about the future of U.S. troops on the peninsula and whether he will acknowledge the North wants them to remain even if tensions are reduced.

Progress may also be made in removing North Korea from the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism and lifting the economic sanctions imposed against those states. North Korea has not sponsored terrorism in years but it still shelters a few Japanese Red Army airplane hijackers from the 1960s. If this last major issue is solved, an important barrier to North Korea joining international financial institutions, a source of aid for its economy, would be removed. Vice Marshal Cho’s visit may also accelerate the establishment of diplomatic relations, an objective agreed to by both sides in 1994 but held up by the North. U.S. officials have speculated North Korea’s military is opposed to a permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in Pyongyang for security reasons. If that hypothesis is true, as a senior military official, Cho could play an important role in moving those discussions forward.

The Clinton Administration would have little to lose and something to gain from a last burst forward in bilateral relations. Taking North Korea off the terrorism list would not lead to immediate economic benefits. Other difficult hurdles remain before Pyongyang can join institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. On the other hand, an acceleration of normalization would help advance the U.S. objective of building ties with North Korea in order to bolster regional stability. It would also support President Kim Dae Jung’s own engagement policy. For the sake of continued close U.S.-ROK relations, Washington must be seen as a supporter, not a critic, of reconciliation between the two Koreas.

Even if Marshall Cho’s visit to Washington is an important turning point, much hard work still lies ahead. As Americans say, “the devil is in the details.” North Korea will still bargain hard and long to get the best deals possible. Moreover, the issues to be addressed, particularly concerns about the security threat posed by the North, are complicated. This Administration may get one more shot at further progress. Secretary of State Albright has hinted she may visit Pyongyang before leaving office in January. But the bulk of the work will remain to be done by the next U.S. Administration, Republican or Democrat.