North Korea wants to deal. Or, more likely, North Korea wants to be paid to deal. Washington has reached another agreement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The North promises to—again—halt nuclear tests and uranium enrichment, and the U.S. will—again—provide Pyongyang with food aid. The so-called Six Party talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, are—again—expected to resume.
It is better for the U.S. and Northeast Asia if North Korea is talking rather than shooting, as it was two years ago, when it sank a South Korean naval vessel and bombarded a South Korean island. However, Washington should have at most modest expectations: the DPRK has given no indication that it desires to yield the only weapons which allow it to command the world’s attention. Moreover, the ongoing leadership transition in Pyongyang makes it unlikely that anyone has either the desire or authority to challenge military priorities.
The U.S. should step back as it encourages resumption of negotiations. Other than following through with its promised food shipments, Washington should leave aid to private NGOs and the North’s neighbors. More important, American officials should inform both the Republic of Korea and Japan that the United States will be phasing out its forces in both countries, leaving them with responsibility for their own security. They should plan accordingly.
Removing America as the focus of regional attention would highlight the roles of other nations. Reaching a peaceful settlement on the peninsula would be primarily an issue between South and North Korea. Encouraging the DPRK to avoid confrontation would be primarily a responsibility of China. Supporting any new security and economic regimes that might result would be primarily a task for Japan and Russia, which are historically involved and geographically near.
The latest U.S.-North Korean agreement is more cause for skepticism than celebration. It could lead to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but is more likely to trigger a repeat of history: interminable talks with only minimal practical results. That would still be better than a war, but still would warrant only minimal effort by Washington.