Why Obama is right to ignore North Korea's latest overture for nuclear talks.

Military analysis.
Jan. 13 2010 4:35 PM

Nothing To Talk About

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

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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.