Time for a Diplomatic Presence in Pyongyang

Jimmy Carter is off in North Korea again.  He’s supposed to bring home 31-year-old Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a Boston resident who was arrested in January for illegally crossing into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from China.

Obviously Kim Jong-il believes that allowing such high-profile rescue missions provides some propaganda value.  Former President Bill Clinton visited for a similar reason last year.  The little advantage that Kim gets from trying to appear magnanimous is a reasonable price to pay for winning the release of imprisoned Americans.

But the strange spectacle of regularly sending unofficial representatives to Pyongyang suggests that it is time to establish diplomatic ties.  The North Koreans undoubtedly would try to present that as a great victory, but it would be an opportunity for Washington to gain an advantage.

If there’s any hope of negotiations getting anywhere over the North’s nuclear program—I’m skeptical, to put it mildly—offering this form of official respect might prove helpful.  More important, opening even a small diplomatic mission in the DPRK would provide the U.S. with a window, however opaque, into the modern “Hermit Kingdom” as well as give North Korean officials occasional contact with Americans.

And having a channel of official communication would be helpful the next time an American wanders across the Yalu River into the North.  You don’t have to like a regime to deal with it.  The DPRK exists.  It’s time to acknowledge that diplomatically.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency was nothing to celebrate.  But he’s used his retirement to do good, as Mr. Gomes likely would attest.  We should use the former president’s trip as an opportunity to open official ties with the North.