Tuesday, July 26, 2005

What's on the table?

I'm not trying to jinx things, but on the second day of talks, the mood is said to be "upbeat."

The long-anticipated talks begin today. Already the pundits are polishing their dual sets of articles, one talking about the amazing breakthrough, and the other with self-satisfied talk of "I told you so." And North Korea is up to its old rhetorical tricks of bashing anyone but themselves and their benefactors in Beijing.

I'm cautiously optimistic. I think the Bush administration has realized the same thing Clinton did before, that negotiation is the only real way out of this. Hold your nose and talk to the fat man. If they really are worried that North Korea has nukes and might use them or sell them, this may not be the time to stand on an inconsistently applied principle; rather, sitting down and trying to really do something about the real nuclear issue might be the most prudent thing to do. If, that is, they really believe the North is a threat.

And I do believe they are a potential threat. I'm not so sure the rest of the world does, though. This is the unspoken cost of Bush's adventurism in Iraq: the rest of the world doesn't believe us when we really need them to. The Bush administration laid down the evidence they said they were sure of, but after occupying all of Iraq for quite some time, they have finally admitted they didn't find anything and likely won't.

The "evidence" and the talk of a smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud now appears little more than a pretext for invasion. And that "intelligence failure" in Iraq means that in the back of their minds, many around the world simply don't believe the Bush administration's claims about Pyongyang.

Call me naive, but I fear the U.S.'s intelligence on the North may be right. But I also believe that North Korea's goal in getting a nuke is probably nothing more than regime survival. I am far less convinced that they would export a weapon, for it would likely lead to their destruction. Selling opium and heroin is easier and quicker. Printing $100 bills is more practical.

I think the Bush administration has pragmatically realized they need to reach a deal, but what would that deal entail? South Korea has already offered electricity; Japan has said they would help out (which might involve a deal over the kidnappee issue, though I'm concerned this topic could derail a deal on the nukes, as could the human rights issue; both topics, perhaps, should be addressed later).

The American and North Korean delegates are going to meet separately before the six-way talks, which might give them a chance to learn more precisely (and without as much spin) what the other side is willing to accept.

So what does North Korea want? Most pundits say regime survival, and I agree. Survival means no invasion or attack from the U.S. more than it means getting aid, which Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo are all set to provide in exchange for real assurances about Pyongyang's nukes. South Korea, which would inherit a huge headache when and if Pyongyang implodes, explodes, or throws in the towel, is set to provide a Korean Marshall Plan.

But people in Washington are loath to provide aid. But do they have to? Pyongyang wants something that would cost very little money to Washington: a peace treaty and normalization. In other words, an official end of war and the establishment of diplomatic relations. They also want something similar from Tokyo.

Normalization could mean more trade for Pyongyang, but it could also mean a lesser likelihood that Washington would attack an independent, sovereign state that it recognizes.

But would Washington ever recognize a DPRK led by Kim Jong-il? Why not? We recognize China, which is rife with human rights abuses (and while I believe Beijing is culpable for propping up Pyongyang, their own abuses of their own people pale in comparison to the horrors committed in North Korea). Under Republican pressure, Clinton even dropped our annual dance of debating the fundamentally economic issue of Most-Favored Nation status in the context of human rights.

Are we ready to recognize we may have more sway over a country we engage than a country we have isolated and don't speak to? I'm glad that Christian groups are pressing the issue of human rights; but I don't agree that isolation is the way to address them. Not in Pyongyang at least.

I'm a firm believer in the law of unintended consequences (who would have guessed that a bunch of nerds at DARPA would cause porn stars to become household names or lead to the near downfall of the music industry?). Pyongyang may think that it can control what goes on within its borders, but the more variables that are added to the mix (in the form of foreign government representatives, foreign citizens, foreign companies, foreign tourists, etc.), the weaker that control potentially is. Engaging North Korea is the key to loosening that grip. Plus, it erodes the fear of the outside that the North has instilled in its people.

I just hope that Washington (and Tokyo) seriously considers this. Yes, it involves holding one's nose. For Tokyo it probably involves resolving the kidnapee issue. But ultimately it is the best way to pull North Korea toward being a normal country.


  1. I agree with you--talking is a must. But what if North Korea does not allow on-site verification or will not come clean on its weapons programs (as Libya has done). Do we go for a deal at less-than-desired levels of verification?

  2. Engagement is the key.
    The difference between the US attitude to China and the US attitude to North Korea is money... pure and simple

  3. da man wrote:
    I agree with you--talking is a must. But what if North Korea does not allow on-site verification or will not come clean on its weapons programs (as Libya has done). Do we go for a deal at less-than-desired levels of verification?

    I think that verification will be a major issue, but if Pyongyang gets its assurances, I think it will be willing to play ball. And with China more on board this time than before, I think it will stick.

    A post-2005-agreement Pyongyang will be scrutinized more closely than the post-1994-agreement was, just because there's a sense that Pyongyang will reneg.

    If it appears that Pyongyang is not cooperating... then there's always the threat of removing the carrots. Korea and Japan would be supplying electricity NOW (not a nuclear plant to be finished LATER), and the U.S. (and Japan and South Korea) could apply a lot of pressure by ending certain projects/ventures.

    That's part of the power of engagement.

    And maybe Pyongyang will realize that it can do better by its people by engaging than lashing out (though I'm less confident of that).

  4. Yo, Cushy Beau:

    What happened to your email? You asked for me to email you, but I never got a reply! (Boo-hoo....)

  5. bit off topic but there's a rather positive article about roh on japan focus site. link


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