Two North Korean diplomats recently met with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — who as U.N. ambassador negotiated with Pyongyang under former President Bill Clinton — and proclaimed their desire for talks with the U.S.
"They feel, the North Koreans, that by giving us the two American journalists, that they've made an important gesture," explained Gov. Richardson. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea certainly knows how to spell chutzpah.
The government of Kim Jong-il is owed nothing. The DPRK is a relic of the Cold War, a Stalinist remnant in which some 23 million people suffer and even starve. The impoverished and backward nation would matter little but for its nuclear weapons program. With the latter, however, Pyongyang can command international attention.
The North has now formally invited the U.S. to send an envoy for negotiations. How to respond? Seven steps would help the U.S. promote peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
1. Keep expectations low. Otherwise sober-minded analysts and policy-makers occasionally proclaim the latest "breakthrough." Yet North Korea thrives on isolation, fears Western freedoms, and relies on brinkmanship as a negotiating technique. Diplomatic progress is possible, but neither certain nor even likely.
2. Negotiate with North Korea. Refusing to talk is a grade-school tactic that has gotten the U.S. nowhere. Indeed, one of the Bush administration's great policy failures was refusing to deal with the North as it began reprocessing spent fuel that had been set aside under the so-called Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration.
Pyongyang both augmented its arsenal and became more confrontational. Washington should engage in both bilateral and multilateral discussions.
3. Beware making the perfect the enemy of the good. An increasing number of analysts doubt that the North will ever give up its existing nuclear materials and weapons. On the other hand, Pyongyang still might be willing to halt any expansion of a program currently capable of yielding only a handful of weapons.
Although a nuclear-free peninsula remains a worthy goal, a freeze might be a more realistic objective in the short-term, while offering a potential way station toward full denuclearization as the North Korean regime evolves or dissolves.
4. Treat North Korean provocations with bored contempt. The U.S. needs to reward the North when it acts responsibly and punish or ignore it when it acts badly. Reprogramming the DPRK won't be easy, but the regime has been on markedly better behavior over the last month than previously. For that Washington and other nations should respond favorably.
5. Let other countries, which have the most at stake, take the lead. The DPRK is primarily a problem for its neighbors, not the U.S. The North's antiquated military has only limited reach. A messy DPRK regime collapse would loose refugees on South Korea and China, not America.
A North Korean nuclear arsenal similarly would most threaten the region. Pyongyang lacks both an accurate delivery vehicle and the miniaturization technology to put a nuke on a missile; moreover, Washington has overwhelming retaliatory capability.
6. Press China in particular to take a more active and forceful role. Economic sanctions are largely futile without the cooperation of the DPRK's northern neighbor. Yet so far Beijing has been more concerned about preventing a North Korean collapse and forestalling creation of a united Korea allied with America.
However, the current situation is highly unstable, with the possibility of regime failure and all the attendant consequences anyway. Moreover, American military action could plunge the entire peninsula into war and South Korea and Japan might respond to a growing North Korean arsenal by developing their own nuclear weapons.
If China acted responsibly, however, Washington could offer to share in the cost of caring for any refugees created as well as promise not to take geopolitical advantage of Beijing by turning the Korean Peninsula into a permanent American military outpost.
7. Withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea. The Republic of Korea has a vast economic and technological lead over its northern antagonist and is fully capable of defending itself.
Nor do American conventional forces help resolve the nuclear issue; to the contrary, by putting U.S. military personnel within reach of the North, Washington has created 28,000 nuclear hostages.
Moreover, eliminating America's military presence on the peninsula would be the strongest possible signal to Beijing that it need not fear pressing the North to deal and reform, even at the risk of the latter's collapse.
The North's coming leadership transition will yield both opportunities and dangers. The Obama administration should recognize the limitations inherent to any policy toward the North, while doing its best to promote a peaceful resolution of the Korean confrontation.