Nothing To Talk About
Why Obama is right to ignore North Korea's latest overture.
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 Times' Choe 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.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of North Korean soldiers by Cancan Chu/Getty Images.