North Korea Reprises Its Role as International Beggar

The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il put relations with the rest of the world on hold.  But Pyongyang has stirred, reprising its role as international beggar.

The new regime, at least nominally headed by Kim’s 28-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, issued its first statement regarding relations with Washington.  The United States should send more than 300,000 tons of previously promised food aid and end economic sanctions to “build confidence” with the North.  In return, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might be willing to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The United States, Japan and South Korea stated yesterday that a “path is open” to restarting the six-party talks to address the concern over the North’s nuclear program.

Pyongyang seemed particularly aggrieved that the Obama administration would link humanitarian assistance to security issues.  Shocking!

As Yogi Berra famously said, it is déjà vu all over again.  North Korea makes agreement.  North Korea gets aid.  North Korea breaks agreement.  North Korea blames West.  North Korea offers to negotiate agreement.  And the cycle starts again.

No one knows what to do with the DPRK.  So far regime elites have preferred even impoverished stability over anything more than pro forma reform.  The death of Kim Jong-il creates an opportunity for change, but there is no obvious constituency for revolution among the party apparatchiks and military officers who dominate the system.

That almost certainly means that Pyongyang is not prepared to negotiate away its existing nuclear capability.  Only two men have ruled the North in the past 63 years; Kim Jong-un has none of their authority, and there are several plausible claimants for the throne.  None is likely to be so foolish to alienate the military by campaigning to give away its ultimate weapon.

It still is worth talking with North Korea.  Despite good reason for skepticism, lesser objectives might be achievable—limits on missile development, withdrawal of advanced conventional units, even caps on nuclear capabilities.  Moreover, the DPRK appears to moderate its behavior while engaged in negotiations.

However, Washington should not pay for more promises.  And the U.S. should not provide inducements just to get Pyongyang to talk.  America has much to offer—diplomatic relations, end of sanctions, access to international aid, military withdrawal from the South.  If confidence is to be rebuilt, it must be rebuilt on both sides.

Washington should make no exception for food aid.  The suffering of the North Korean people is tragic, but it remains the result of conscious policies adopted by the North Korean regime.  In fact, that is what “Juche,” the oft-proclaimed policy of self-reliance, is all about.

Moreover, the DPRK would view any government assistance as political affirmation.  And any assistance would bolster a system under siege, aiding the government as it attempts to demonstrate its power and wealth this year during its centenary celebrations of founder Kim Il-sung’s birth.  If the North needs more help, let it go to China, which already is keeping this desolate land afloat economically.

Refusing to engage other nations rarely makes sense, even in the case of North Korea, despite the monstrous nature of the regime.  However engagement does not mean appeasement.  In the future, Washington should restrict its rewards to the North for acting, not promising.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.