War Stories

Nothing To Talk About

Why Obama is right to ignore North Korea’s latest overture.

North Korean soldiers carrying the North Korean flag

North Korea offered to resume talks on its nuclear-weapons program this week. President Obama ignored the overture—and properly so.

In its proposal, Pyongyang’s foreign ministry stated it would return to the negotiating table on two conditions: if the United States first signs a treaty formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War, and if the United Nations lifts the sanctions it imposed last spring after Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile and tested an atomic bomb.

It would be reasonable to reward North Korea for taking certain actions, but simply promising to return to the table for arms talks is not one of them. It would even be reasonable for the United States to make the first step, some token of goodwill, in advance of the North Koreans coming back to the table. Lifting sanctions, however, is a major prize—to be offered, if at all, well into the negotiations.

When Obama sent former President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang last summer to talk with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and to secure the release of two American reporters who had been taken prisoner for crossing the border from China, many thought that the meeting might be the prelude to resumed diplomacy. Obama’s envoy, Stephen Bosworth, subsequently flew back to the North Korean capital for face-to-face talks with Kim’s top officials, most recently last month.

But these gestures led to nothing.

Obama should be ready to reopen talks about nuclear weapons or any other subject, without preconditions, the moment the North Koreans express a serious interest in the subject. But this week’s offer is far from serious. It is more of the sort of games-playing that the United States once had to take part in—but is now in a position to ignore.

Take North Korea’s eagerness for a treaty to put a formal end to the Korean War. In its statement this week, the foreign ministry said a peace treaty would “help resolve hostile relations … and speed up the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

The catch, as the New York TimesChoe Sang-Hun spotted, is that the statement calls for the treaty to be negotiated by the signatories of the 1953 armistice—the wartime United Nations command (led by the United States), China, and North Korea. South Korea, which refused to sign the cease-fire accord at the time, is excluded.

Obama is perfectly willing to work out the terms of a peace treaty, as were Clinton and George H.W. Bush. But U.S. officials, in all these administrations, have emphasized that South Korea must also be involved in those talks. The North Koreans’ omission of South Korea from the list of negotiating parties indicates that their real aim is not to build international trust but rather to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.

Playing its adversaries off one another has been North Korea’s strategy ever since the state was created as a Soviet protectorate at the end of World War II. For a small, poor, and insular regime, surrounded by several large, prosperous, and outward-looking powers (a “shrimp among whales,” in the words of an old Korean saying), this has been a strategy of survival, and for the most part a successful one.

In recent years, though, Kim Jong-il has overplayed his hand, and the strategy may be on the verge of collapsing.

Like his father before him, North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il has to balance two contradictory imperatives to maintain power. On the one hand, as ruler of a country with almost no resources, he depends on aid from outsiders. On the other hand, as an absolute dictator, he needs to keep his society as closed as possible so that his people remain unaware of the relative freedom and prosperity outside their borders—unaware, in other words, that other forms of government are possible, even preferable.

During the heyday of the Cold War and the Soviet empire, Moscow’s largesse kept the Pyongyang regime solvent. When that well ran dry, Beijing picked up the bills and supplied the trade routes, though less for ideological reasons than geopolitical ones: first, to keep the regime stable (and thus avoid the prospect of a million or so refugees flooding across China’s borders); second, to keep America’s East Asian-based military forces in and near Korea (and thus distract their attention from Taiwan).

Starting in the 1990s, North Korea amassed greater leverage by threatening to go nuclear—and trading its forbearance for vast quantities of aid, especially in food and fuel, not only from China and (to some extent) Russia but also from the United States and especially South Korea, whose new liberal government was eager to pursue a “sunshine” policy of détente with the North.

A case can be made that North Korea developed nuclear-weapons technology entirely as a bargaining chip for this aid. The Agreed Framework of 1995, which the Clinton administration negotiated with Kim Jong-il, enshrined the arrangement: Pyongyang puts its nuclear fuel rods under lock, key, and international inspection; Washington and other capitals up their economic assistance.

But then Kim committed a dreadful miscalculation: He went ahead and built, then tested, a nuclear bomb. (He did this in response to a miscalculation by George W. Bush, who, soon after becoming president in 2001, cancelled the Agreed Framework, believing that it was immoral to deal with this evil regime, which, he further believed, would collapse under America’s pressure.)

By carrying out his threat to build a bomb, Kim cashed in his chip and the bargaining power that went with it.

His move also had three tangible consequences that worked against Kim’s interests. First, it alarmed the neighbors, to the point where, earlier this year, China went along with a U.N. resolution condemning North Korea, and, more important, South Koreans elected a new government that is much more skeptical and stingy toward Pyongyang. (South Korea had been sending a half million tons of food, and 1.5 million tons of fertilizer, northward; the new government cancelled the entire program.)

Second, it is now much harder for Kim to lure the United States back to arms negotiations. Before he exploded a bomb, all Kim had to do in exchange for Western aid was to halt his plutonium program. Now that he has a few bombs, he can’t expect substantive concessions from the United States unless he dismantles his weapons—a step that, besides the humiliation, would involve foreign intrusion on North Korean soil, to verify the dismantling.

Third, now that Kim has a few bombs, and might build a few more, the United States has less trouble persuading other powers that North Korea is a threat to the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. It’s plausible that Pyongyang might sell a bomb or bomb-making materials to rogue regimes or terrorists, if just to earn much-needed hard currency. As a result, more countries are willing to cooperate in blocking or boarding North Korean ships or airplanes that are suspected of carrying contraband.

None of this is to suggest that Obama should cut off all ties with North Korea and let the country stew in its putrid juices. For one thing, the regime isn’t about to implode—China will continue to ensure that—and intensified isolation will only work in the regime’s favor.

To the contrary, Obama and U.S. allies in the region should do everything they can to engage Pyongyang—not so much on its nuclear program, at least not until Kim agrees to take serious measures toward disarmament. Rather, they should offer to help North Korea’s ailing economy—but in ways that also open up its society to the outside world.

The threat to go nuclear gave Kim the leverage to extract foreign aid while keeping a clamp on foreign influences. Now that he’s surrendered that leverage, it’s time to maneuver him into opening the door wide.

In an excellent article in the November/December 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Lankov, a Russian émigré who teaches history at Kookmin University in Seoul, calls this approach “subversive engagement.” The Pyongyang regime, Lankov writes, is “remarkably immune to outside pressure.” But it’s potentially quite vulnerable to “radical transformation” from within, if enough well-placed North Koreans are exposed to—and thus realize the possibilities of—attractive alternatives to their system.

Daniel Sneider, associate director of Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, agrees. “We should make things as difficult as possible for North Korean leaders,” he said in a phone interview. “At the same time, we should offer them the easiest opportunities for markets, student exchanges, and humanitarian assistance but only if we have access to distribute the goods. And we should keep talks open on everything—in part to leap into action if they finally get serious on disarmament, in part to make possible all the other things designed to open things up.”

The idea, Sneider says, is not to impose change from outside, which is probably impossible. Rather, it is to create the conditions for change from within—to exacerbate the internal dilemmas that Kim Jong-il has always faced but that he now has less leverage to manipulate.

There are almost certainly divisions within the North Korean government over whether, and how, to open up the society. For a brief period, Kim opened private markets in limited areas and allowed foreign currencies to be traded. Recently, fearful of the freedoms these practices were unleashing, he shut down most of the markets and put very tight limits on foreign currencies. Some people were getting a little rich, and experiencing new delights, in this period—including, no doubt, people in positions of some power. They may be chafing at the sudden losses. If things are opened up again—or, as is more likely, if they’re opened, then shut, then opened, then shut—then, at some point, the new economic elites might translate their interests into political action.