North Korea Needs a Personal Touch

I had plenty of challenging assignments during 28 years in the Army, five years on the staff of the National Security Council and two years at the State Department. But perhaps the hardest part of working for the government was leaving it. When news of my resignation from the State Department broke on Aug. 26, the reports ranged from amusing to mildly malicious to dead wrong. A Wall Street Journal opinion piece accused me of undermining a top department official in a meeting I never had.

Simply stated, I did not resign in protest, nor did I time my departure to make a public statement. I withheld comment during the six-party talks in Beijing last month, believing it inappropriate to place an undue burden on our negotiating team.

Whatever my personal views on our North Korea policy, I owe the president what every citizen does: support in seeking a resolution to the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. That does not mean that I necessarily agree with all aspects of our government’s policy. When I disagree, I won’t hesitate to offer my views. I did that while a member of the last two administrations.

I resigned as special envoy for negotiations with North Korea because I was in the job in name only. I was brought into this administration precisely because of my experience in dealing with North Koreans, but was now perceived as too soft on North Korea. I had tendered my resignation April 18 when I was not selected to lead the trilateral talks in Beijing. Secretary of State Colin Powell asked me to stay on for a while and, out of enormous respect for him, I did. I departed as soon as I had helped to set up the next round of talks.

The administration is correct in wanting to internationalize the nuclear issue. Ultimately any resolution will require the buy-in of the six parties involved in the multilateral talks. What is missing is the bilateral piece.

It is not possible to have a serious, sustained discussion in a plenary setting over a few days. Six delegations, 24 interpreters and many note-takers guarantee that the reading of scripted remarks is about the only thing that will take place in open session. For North Korea, it is a requirement to get into the record how great the “Dear Leader” is and how the hostile U.S. policy is to blame for the current crisis.

However, in a bilateral setting, it is possible over time to peel away the posturing and deal with substantive issues. I have been able to cut off an opening monologue and tell my North Korean counterpart to just pretend he gave the speech and I would pretend I listened and then we could get down to business. That is possible only after developing a personal relationship that comes with extended contact. Having a 40-minute encounter in the corner of the room will not do it. My first serious exposure to bilateral talks with North Korea lasted 11 hours, and that was only the first day.

The structure of the six-party talks is useful and will ultimately be a significant part of the solution, but we must be able to engage the North Koreans at length. Serious engagement with Pyongyang does not equate, as some have said, with rewarding North Korea. Others have said we don’t want to negotiate with the North Koreans because they are too good at it. Nonsense. Negotiators do not commit their governments to any course of action during negotiations.

Having a series of bilateral meetings under the umbrella of six-party talks opens up all kinds of possibilities. Coordinating approaches, comparing notes and recalibrating as a result of Chinese, Japanese, South Korean and Russian bilateral meetings with North Korea can have a synergistic effect in moving more quickly toward a resolution.

It also has the added advantage of taking the initiative away from North Korea. Up to now, Pyongyang has determined the pace of developments, and those have all been negative. Getting the substance of our policy right is critical, but if the structure is wrong we won’t get very far.