The Magazine

What's Going on in Pyongyang?

North Korea responds to sticks, not carrots.

Sep 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 01 • By GORDON G. CHANG
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On August 29, the North Korean government released four South Korean fishermen whose boat had strayed into Northern waters a month earlier. The return of the crew came shortly after the freeing of a South Korean manager in the Kaesong industrial zone, detained in March for making derogatory comments about the paradise formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. And early last month, Kim Jong Il, the North Korean supremo, personally pardoned two American journalists accused of spying and allowed Bill Clinton to take them home.

The release of the hostages was accompanied by overtures to both the United States and South Korea, Pyongyang's two main adversaries. First, in an unmistakable sign it wanted to talk, the North sent diplomats to New Mexico, whose governor, Bill Richardson, they consider a trusted interlocutor. Days later, North Korean envoys traveled to Seoul for the funeral of former president Kim Dae-jung, carrying a message from Kim Jong Il to South Korea's current leader, Lee Myung-bak.

While Pyongyang is suddenly showing its best side, prior to August, it had revealed its worst. In the first months of this year, it was issuing almost daily threats against South Korea. Then, beginning in early April, it launched a long-range missile, detonated a nuclear device, announced the resumption of plutonium production, terminated the Korean war armistice, and launched cyberattacks on South Korea and the United States.

The about-face coincides with an apparent recovery in the health of Chairman Kim, who looked surprisingly robust in the pictures of him interacting with, and apparently lecturing, Clinton and his delegation. It is tempting to conclude Kim has wrested power back from his generals, who appeared to be in command in the early part of the year when Kim looked as if he were dying.

Kim's resurgence has predictably given new life to calls for renewing our engagement with Pyongyang. "As North Korea experts know, the country has long wanted to improve relations with Washington," wrote Han Park, a University of Georgia professor, at the end of last month in the Los Angeles Times. "Now that a back channel has been opened courtesy of Clinton, the Obama administration should open a direct channel of negotiations with Pyongyang." But the risks remain unchanged.

The Obama administration famously came into office willing to extend the open hand to autocrats. Its early efforts to begin discussions with the North Koreans, however, were rebuffed, and by late spring the conclusion was that the Pyongyang regime was not interested in talking to either the United States or the broader international community. The North, after all, had stated in clear terms it would not participate in the so-called six-party talks sponsored by Beijing.

The most urgent--and important--item on the agenda of any negotiations is North Korea's nuclear weapons program and its sales of weapons technologies to hostile regimes, especially Iran and Syria. The United States has been talking about these issues directly with the North since June 1993. Negotiations since then have been bilateral and multilateral, formal and informal. Every conceivable format has been tried at least once, and the talks have been everything but successful.

Almost everyone says that diplomacy carries no cost. Yet that is not true. In June 1993 North Korea did not have the bomb. Today, after two detonations, we know it does. In short, negotiations have given the dangerous despots in Pyongyang what they needed most in order to arm themselves: time. Now, North Korean technicians are using time to shrink their nuclear devices and mate them to their missiles, which they are also improving, and to advance an uranium enrichment program revealed this month in a dramatic announcement. We have, thanks to the directionless policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations, allowed Kim Jong Il to become a real threat.

The Obama team had indicated it wanted to "break the cycle" of long negotiations leading to broken agreements by cordoning off North Korea from the rest of world. Its renewed emphasis on pressure explains the sanctions imposed last week and during the last three months on North Korean trading firms and a bank.