Tag: six-party talks

North Korea: Déjà Vu All Over Again!

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.

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.