Engaging North Korea

Today, Hillary Clinton offered North Korea incentives to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.  She said:


“If North Korea is genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons program, the Obama administration will be willing to normalize bilateral relations, replace the peninsula’s long-standing armistice agreements with a permanent peace treaty and assist in meeting the energy and other economic needs of the North Korean people.”


These incentives address the chief concern that the North Korean regime has used to justify its weapons program, namely the accusation that the US is planning military aggression against the DPRK.  Whether or not Kim Jong-Il actually believe that the US intends to attack his country is uncertain; he may just be using the specter of atomic bombs to improve his negotiating position vis-à-vis the US and other interested nations.


The Clinton proposal also deals with bread and butter issues like North Korea’s desperate need for money, oil and food.  The North Korean economy is in shambles—a US diplomat once told me a story about a time when he and other Western diplomats were dining at a restaurant in Pyongyang; when the paid their bill the waitress gave them Juicy Fruit gum as change.  The DPRK’s energy problems are evidenced by the fact that no lights can be seen in American satellite photos taken at night over North Korea, whereas South Korea is well lighted like all the other industrialized countries in the world.  In the 1990s, an estimated two million North Koreans starved to death and food shortages are still a major problem.  The bottom line is that the US and its allies have significant leverage over North Korea, which obviously strengthens the allies’ negotiating position.


To verify that the DPRK has “completely and verifiably” dismantled its nuclear weapons programs the closed-off nation will have to allow IAEA inspectors to monitor its nuclear sites.  Even if they do there is no guarantee that the programs will be abandoned forever because at some point in the future Kim Jong-Il or his successor could easily kick the inspectors out of the country as he did several years ago.  That is a risk the US and its allies will have to run if they intend to find a diplomatic solution to the situation, and at this point there are no other viable options.  If North Korea does not uphold its end of the bargain then the other parties can withhold economic assistance or cut off relations in response to the intransigence.  Ultimately, the cost of this deal to the allied powers is fairly insignificant and is therefore worth paying, although I do feel sorry for the poor bastards who will have to man the US embassy in Pyongyang (I guess they’ll have to draw straws to see who has to reside in the worst country in the world).


This olive branch to North Korea could have implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region because it signals that the Obama Administration is willing to engage with hostile countries, even ones which President Bush characterized as “evil”.  President Obama recently reached out to Iran and proposed bilateral talks, and perhaps the peace overtures to North Korea will encourage Iran to improve relations between the Islamic Republic and the US.  Thus far, the sticks employed by the international community to influence the behavior of “rogue” states like North Korea and Iran have been ineffectual.  Hopefully the carrots being offered by the Obama Administration will work better.


One Response to “Engaging North Korea”

  1. Conway Says:

    It’s like a time warp and we’ve gone back to the Clinton administration. (And is it just me or does Hillary look more and more like Madeline Albright, I find it a little creepy). To ever say we have “leverage” on North Korea seems to me a stretch considering the hardship they seem to be capable of enduring, but the Obama admin has an opportunity. I think Clinton’s trip to China will play a big part, the closer a relationship we can have with the PRC the more nervous Kim Jong-Il will get. This is issue number five of about a million we really need China’s cooperation on. In light of Clinton’s trip, this was the right time to make this statement.

    I thought it was funny how the DPRK began to sweat and throw a tantrum when they weren’t mentioned for a while.

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