Shadow Government

Look who’s talking now: can dialogue stop North Korean provocations?

This week Secretary of State Clinton announced in Asia that the United States will invite North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye-Gwan to New York for exploratory talks about further talks leading perhaps to a resumption of the long-stalled Six Party Talks.  The administration is struggling to maintain sang froid and avoid the breathless rush ...

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This undated picture, released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on April 23, 2010, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (C) inspecting Pyongyang's Kaeson Youth Park, which has been reconstructed into a people's recreation ground. North Korea seized South Korean-owned assets at a mountain resort on April 23, warning that the two countries were on the brink of war over the sinking of a warship on their disputed border. AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS (Photo credit should read KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

This week Secretary of State Clinton announced in Asia that the United States will invite North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye-Gwan to New York for exploratory talks about further talks leading perhaps to a resumption of the long-stalled Six Party Talks.  The administration is struggling to maintain sang froid and avoid the breathless rush for breakthroughs that led to an embarrassing bait-and-switch by the North Koreans after the Bush administration preemptively lifted sanctions in October 2008.  Nobody in the current (or former) administration now thinks North Korea has any intention of abandoning their missile and nuclear weapons programs.  After two nuclear tests, outward proliferation attempts to Syria and probably Burma, boastful revelations about their clandestine uranium enrichment program, and vows to become a full nuclear weapons state by 2012, Pyongyang has left little ammunition for its apologists (though some still hold out in isolated pockets in Berkeley, Seoul, and -of course– Beijing). 

Why then is the administration resuming dialogue with Pyongyang?  The main reason is to convince the North not to engage in further nuclear tests or provocations in 2012.  Aside from being the 100th birthday of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, 2012 is also an election year in the United States and South Korea and therefore highly auspicious for new North Korean demonstrations of nuclear and missile capability.  Senator John Kerry echoed the administration’s concerns when he warned recently that "given North Korea’s recent irresponsible conduct, staying in a diplomatic holding pattern invites a dangerous situation to get even worse."  And so the administration, which had shown solidarity with Seoul in the wake of North Korea’s sinking of the ROKS Corvette Cheonan and fatal shelling of Yeongpyong Island last year by declaring it would not engage the North until the South did, began pressuring Seoul this year to relax its demands for an apology from the North.  In Bali last week the South Korean Foreign Minister met symbolically with his North Korean counterpart (sans apology), opening the way for the administration to make its own move.

Will this modest gambit prevent further provocations?  There are two things that recommend the approach.  First, the North needs food aid — not so much for starving people as for the celebration of the elder Kim’s birthday and the youngest Kim’s (Kim Jong Eun’s) succession to replace Kim Jong Il. Second, the administration appears to have convinced Seoul that engagement with the North now will put more pressure on Beijing to punish the North if there are provocations next year.

Still, these are thin reeds with which to dissuade Pyongyang from keeping on schedule with its propaganda and weapons development schedules.  Hopefully, the administration has no intention of backing away from implementation of sanctions under UN Security Council Resolutions 1619 and 1874, which will do much more to constrain proliferation and focus the mind of the Dear Leader than the forthcoming dialogue.  Moreover, rather than worrying primarily about appearing reasonable to Beijing in advance of North Korean testing, Seoul and Washington would do well to demonstrate the consequences of North Korean provocations in terms of tighter U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral security cooperation (to her credit, Secretary Clinton held a trilateral with her ROK and Japanese counterparts while in Asia this time).  The greatest utility of dialogue at this juncture may be to convince Pyongyang and Beijing that there will be no relaxation of pressure without concrete and verifiable steps at denuclearization, but that there is still a notional prospect for improved relations if the North is forthcoming.  That will also require the administration to stand firm even if the North threatens to walk out and exact retribution for America’s "hostile policy" because we have not made concessions.  The administration swears it will not pay for talks, but given that the purpose of the talks is to prevent further North Korean provocations, we have already handed early leverage to Pyongyang.

Michael Jonathan Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and chair in modern and contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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