The apparent success of Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s trip to Pyongyang makes it more likely that President Clinton will go to North Korea, perhaps as early as next month. If that visit happens?and it should?it would be the latest in a series of startling developments on the Korean peninsula which indicate the transition away from the Cold War is now accelerating.
Historically, North Korean foreign policy has three speeds?reverse, idle or full speed ahead. Over the past five months, Chairman Kim Jong Il has put his foot on the gas pedal in his quest for international legitimacy and economic assistance. The South-North summit in June not only signaled the beginning of rapproachement but also set the stage for better relations with the US. Improving relations with Seoul has always been critical to improving relations with Washington. In early October, the door was nudged open further with the surprising visit of Vice Marshal Cho to Washington. Now Pyongyang, in its rush to secure a visit by President Clinton, has received Secretary of State Albright.
These developments have taken American Korea experts by surprise. A little over a month ago, most-including myself? were predicting that not much would happen in US-North Korean relations during the waning months of the Clinton Administration. But given the recent developments-largely driven by North Korea-the Administration has adopted the right approach. It has decided to take advantage of this rare period of acceleration, even if it comes at the end of Clinton’s term in office, to see just how far Pyongyang will go. In that context, the prospective visit of President Clinton? which the North has requested ?serves as important negotiating leverage.
Secretary Albright probably went to Pyongyang with a long list of demands. She probably returns with a shorter list of general North Korean commitments. That will make it harder for the Administration to make a final decision on the Clinton visit. But Secretary Albright said in Seoul that progress was made on the possible provision of commercial satellite launches to North Korea in return for abandonment of its long-range missile tests. This is a potentially important development given concerns about the threat posed by these weapons. In a further encouraging sign, the Administration will immediately dispatch a team of missile experts for more discussions with North Korea.
Exactly how far these discussions can go in such a short time is unclear. The devil is always in the detail and that is particularly true for technical issues like missile restraints. Moreover, a deal may require the participation of other countries, such as Russia, China and perhaps Japan, who would provide either the space launchers or financing. That will take time to arrange. One short-term outcome might be a joint statement of guidelines. For example, North Korea would agree to a permanent end to long-range missile tests in return for a commitment that its satellites would be launched from foreign rockets. The US and North Korea adopted a similar arrangement in August 1994. It formed the basis for the much more detailed US-North Korea Agreed Framework that ended the North’s nuclear weapons program and was completed two months later.
Critics are right to be concerned about the President of the United States visiting a country with North Korea’s record. But the reasons to go are stronger than those to stay home. If progress on limiting the North Korean missile threat can be announced at the end of the President’s visit, then the substantive results would justify it. Also, the President can use his face-to-face discussions with Chairman Kim to make US intentions crystal clear and to reinforce efforts by South Korea and Japan to improve relations with Pyongyang. In particular, he should tell Chairman Kim that better relations with the US are no substitute for South-North rapproachement. Finally, the United States still has important interests in Northeast Asia and will need to work hard to shape the future of that region during a transition away from Cold War confrontation. A Clinton visit would further that effort.
A common question asked by the Democratic Party during this year’s election campaign has been are Americans better off now then they were 8 years ago before President Clinton was elected. The same question could be asked about the state of Korean peninsula today compared to 1993 and the answer is yes. Confronted with the nightmare of a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them and in spite of constant Republican criticism, the Administration has pursued a policy of improving relations with the North. That policy has proven to be the right approach. In that context, a visit by President Clinton to Pyongyang makes perfect sense.
Todd Stern speaks at The Economist’s Climate Risks Summit.