The Magazine

Six Parties, Zero Progress

State pretends things are going well with North Korea.

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL
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The Six Party Talks, supposedly a model of multilateral diplomacy, have thus caused each party to act more unilaterally. Washington is essentially conducting its own negotiations with Pyongyang. Japan, a little less confident of U.S. protection, is showing a keener interest in having its own military capabilities to defend against North Korean missiles. And China is taking military and economic measures of its own to live with or perhaps even control an unstable, nuclear regime on its borders. The situation is, in short, more precarious than when this new round of diplomacy began.

President Bush, who has shown a remarkable steadfastness on Iraq, keen not to bequeath a Middle East disaster to his successor, still has an opportunity to change course in Korea. South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak, seems willing to be less conciliatory to Kim Jong Il and repair relations with Japan and Washington. South Korea has little interest in seeing a Chinese satellite state to its north. But Lee is getting mixed messages from Washington. He can't take a tougher line if Washington sticks to its "agreement at any price" course.

Rather than tying the hands of the next president, President Bush could start taking a more realistic approach to North Korea. First, Washington can halt its economic largesse until North Korea makes a full, and verifiable, declaration of its nuclear programs. Any talk of de-listing North Korea as a terrorist state or of normalizing relations is inappropriate given North Korea's continued bad behavior. Second, the Bush administration should tell the truth about North Korea's proliferation. If Pyongyang proliferated, it is time to once again sanction, squeeze, isolate, and perhaps even quarantine it. Third, the administration should focus its time and energy on building a common approach with South Korea and Japan. Washington shares with its democratic allies an interest in a democratic, unified peninsula. All three parties should ramp up efforts to take in the refugees still pouring out of North Korea.

The prospect of real change in North Korea under Kim is next to zero. All three countries should thus reestablish a strong deterrent posture that will be necessary as they work toward the only real, albeit long term, solution: a unified Korea free of Kim Jong Il and his ilk.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former senior director for China and Taiwan in the office of the secretary of defense.