North Korea Out of a Corner?

With the election last week of Lee Myung-bak to be South Korea’s next president come February, a new phase is beginning in efforts to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program — and ideally, to begin a gradual reform and integration with the rest of the world.

The prospects are uncertain at best, despite the Feb. 13 accord by which North Korea has committed to disable its existing nuclear facilities and move to talks on ultimate denuclearization. Many doubt North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will be willing to relinquish the eight to 10 nuclear weapons he probably already has — one or two dating back to the first Bush presidency, the rest presumably built over the last five years.

The change in key South Korean leadership, with change coming as well in the United States in a year, raises the question of optimal negotiating tactics with North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK. Few in Seoul, Washington or anywhere else really differ on what the world’s core goals should be in these talks. The differences are about how hard- or soft-line our approach should be. Unfortunately, the wily North Koreans are quite capable of exploiting differences of opinion, not only between Americans and South Koreans but also Chinese and Japanese and Russians and others.

Whatever one thinks of President Bush’s 2002 axis of evil speech and subsequent doctrine of pre-emption — and I consider both to have been mistakes, not so much on the underlying substance as on the image of a unilateral, messianic America they created in the eyes of the world — clearly, North Korea managed to use these American ideas to create an image of victimization. Incredibly, many then saw American saber-rattling and intransigence, rather than the basic nature of the North Korean regime, as the fundamental cause of tensions on the peninsula. The subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq reaffirmed this interpretation for many around the world.

The invasion also took America’s eye off the Korean Peninsula, with none other than Colin Powell incredulously claiming just before the Iraq invasion that North Korea’s steps to break out of its nonnuclear obligations and expand its nuclear arsenal did not constitute a crisis.

Circumstances did not really change until 2006, when a combination of a more flexible American negotiating approach under Ambassador Chris Hill and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, together with North Korea’s decision to push its luck a bit too far and test a nuclear device, finally rallied more of the world around the U.S. position.

Subsequent U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea, and quite probably some private tongue-lashing — or worse — from the Chinese to their North Korean allies paved the way for the Feb. 13 accords.

With Mr. Lee now poised to replace South Korean’s incumbent President Roh Moo-hyun, we will witness a different approach. Mr. Roh was as soft-line on the DPRK as George Bush was hard-line. The long and short of it, for most of Mr. Roh’s five-year tenure, seemed to be that South Korea would offer North Koreans carrots irrespective of their behavior, while the United States would emphasize only sticks. Never were Washington and Seoul able to articulate a common roadmap or broad vision for their North Korea policy. In Pyongyang, Mr. Kim figured that out easily. He accepted South Korean and Chinese aid, investment, and diplomatic attention (and some U.S. food aid too), while dragging his feet on the six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing his country.

Mr. Lee promises a more conditional, and more logical, approach. South Korea’s largess will now depend on North Korean behavior. There is a distinct chance the next American president will do the same; in fact, Mr. Bush is as noted now doing so himself. Chris Hill is willing to talk with the North Koreans directly in a wide range of settings, and willing at least to hint at an improved relationship with North Korea if progress is made on the nuclear front, and Mr. Bush has just written Mr. Kim a letter along similar lines.

Even in Japan, where the strongly anti-DPRK Koizumi and Abe leaderships have passed from the scene, there may be more flexibility, though that will require greater North Korean efforts to come clean about what it has done with the dozens or more Japanese believed kidnapped by its agents over the years.

In light of this history, it is interesting to inquire about whether Sen. Barack Obama’s promise to talk directly with foreign leaders would have much of an impact on North Korea policy. Certainly, breaking the ice that George Bush created when he belittled President Kim as a “pygmy” and spoke of his disdain for the North Korean leader could help improve the atmospherics for negotiations, one might think.

But Mr. Bush has already softened his approach considerably in recent times. President Roh never held back on a willingness to give Mr. Kim attention and direct engagement; the Chinese often obliged Mr. Kim with attention as well.

In fact, the United States has itself tried high-level diplomacy in the past. Former President Jimmy Carter went to North Korea in 1994 to meet with Mr. Kim’s father; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang half a decade later. The first trip helped produce the important 1994 Agreed Framework, which constrained the DPRK nuclear program for almost a decade. But then again, we now know North Korea began cheating on that accord during the Clinton years and presumably kept doing so even as Mrs. Albright was providing increased public attention.

The long and short of this history is that direct U.S.-North Korea talks are important. But they are hardly a guarantee of success. And we have to be careful to avoid rewarding Mr. Kim with lots of American attention when he continues to preside over a gulag system of internal repression, spend 30 percent of his country’s meager GDP on its military, and hold onto his nuclear weapons (not to mention chemical weapons — and not to mention abducted Japanese).

More than top-level meetings, what we need to do most is get our basic policy right and show publicly that we are in lockstep with our allies South Korea and Japan, as well as the important countries of China and Russia (the other countries involved in the six-party talks). The best way to do so is to agree on conditionality — better North Korean behavior should lead to more generous aid from the outside world, whereas DPRK intransigence should lead to sanctions and reduced investment and trade activities led by China and South Korea.

The broad goal should be to convince North Korea to evolve as Vietnam has done, even while maintaining one-party rule — toward gradual reform of its economy, de-emphasis on its military, more engagement with the outside world, less counterfeiting and drug smuggling, better treatment of its own people. Otherwise any nuclear deals will be built on a foundation of an unsustainable North Korean economy and an extremist, hostile DPRK ideology likely to produce more crises down the road. We should offer the possibility of aid, trade and diplomatic benefits — but they should be conferred only as the North takes specific, verifiable steps cut its military, open its economy, improve human-rights policy and, of course, forgo proliferation of dangerous weaponry and technologies abroad.

And while we watch Mr. Lee’s new approach, it would be nice if we heard more presidential candidates’ thoughts on how to build on the recent modest progress with North Korea and work with a new government in Seoul toward the real goals of North Korean denuclearization and gradual reform.

So far this hugely important question is being just as badly ignored in the current presidential debate as it was by Mr. Bush back in 2002 when North Korea broke out of its treaty commitments and dramatically expanded its nuclear arsenal.