Abandoning North Korea

On this, Obama and Bush agree: Washington has no business in Pyongyang.

Three years into the Obama administration, time is eroding the chances of serious denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang is unlikely to undertake such talks once the presidential campaign begins in earnest next year or decide to make a quantum leap in concessions given the expectation that a republican president would present far worse terms (or none at all). The possibility of making progress would be a serious challenge even if negotiations began tomorrow. And that is certainly not going to happen.

In July our special Korean negotiator met with his North Korean counterpart in New York for the first time in almost two years, albeit under the guise of a visit to an NGO in New York. The 2009 talks were characterized by the State Department as “a good start”; this time the talks have been (not surprisingly) described as “constructive.” Yet the fact is that the Obama administration has shown little interest in negotiating with Pyongyang, and indeed it has mostly approached North Korea much like the Bush administration did early in George W.’s first term.

That administration started out by making the usual overtures of expressing the need to communicate with North Korea and showing a renewed interest in talks. But all this ended relatively quickly, supposedly on the grounds that the North was unresponsive to American concerns about its weapons programs. In truth, the administration decided that strategically, given the difficulties of dealing with Pyongyang, it was necessary to shore up its existing alliances and support the new South Korean president in his tough-minded policy.

President Lee reversed the policy of his two predecessors who believed large amounts of aid would transform North Korea (they were obviously wrong). He apparently thought the North was deteriorating quickly enough that he could help bring it down by denying massive handouts and isolating Pyongyang as much as possible to force it to the negotiating table, hat in hand. This new policy had the quaint title ”strategic patience.” But North Korea reacted very aggressively, sinking a South Korean ship and launching an artillery attack on an ROK island that killing fifty Koreans.

Interestingly enough, perhaps worried about his party’s political future, President Lee has initiated secret talks with North Korea—long a South Korean staple—on normalization and recently sacked his very hardline minister in charge of North-South relations. That has stimulated much speculation in the South about a resumption of the six-party talks. The North, for its part, has repeatedly made noises to visiting Americans and Chinese about restarting talks both bilaterally and in the six-party forum. These have counted for little In Washington, which wants much greater assurance on North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization and on its newly revealed uranium-enrichment program. Kim Jong-il himself most recently declared the North Korean negotiating position: yes to talks, no to any preconditions.

More than strategic considerations are at work here. The top levels at the White House and State Department do not want negotiations, and they have shown themselves even tougher on this course than their predecessors in the Bush administration who were split on the utility of talks and went from hostility to hurried, often secret negotiations on an almost out-of-pocket basis, making many involved angry at not knowing what was happening.

There is no political benefit in Washington to having negotiations with such a truly bad state. The Congress, whether Republican or Democrat, has never liked negotiations with Pyongyang, and it certainly abhors giving North Korea the aid that would be required to invite progress on reducing the country’s nuclear-weapons capability. Congressional opposition contributes to the administration’s refusal to provide even the most badly needed food aid to the North. As presidential elections approach, we can expect our leaders to pay even less attention to North Korea—unless violence breaks out.

The goal of total denuclearization seems far off—if possible at all—given the legacy of the Bush administration, recent events in Libya and North Korea's declining conventional capabilities. The regime in Pyongyang appears increasingly weaker, and its people are very poor. China helps prop it up economically, but Kim is trying to reduce the North’s dependence on its Chinese ally and clearly wants to find ways of improving its relations with the United States in its search for aid.

The Obama administration may continue to be bound by the politics of this issue. Some even hope that the North Korean regime ultimately implodes, despite all the uncertainties and dangers that scenario holds for proliferation and stability on the peninsula. Or in the face of all of these difficulties, perhaps Washington is seriously prepared to negotiate again with the aim of curbing Pyongyang's nuclear development, missile programs and proliferation activities—and without taking the end goal of regime denuclearization off of the table.