Rumors are again swirling in Seoul and Washington about a forthcoming softening of policies toward North Korea. The buzz in Washington is that the Obama Administration, fearful of another North Korean provocation, is pressuring President Lee Myung Bak to abandon previous preconditions in order to enable a resumption of inter-Korean dialogue. Such a resumption would, according to the rumors, provide sufficient political cover for the United States to initiate its own bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang.
Not that Washington would expect any progress in solving the North Korean nuclear problem. Instead the objective would be to trick North Korea into postponing any provocations as long as dialogue dragged on. The theory, which may well be shared by some U.S. diplomats, is based on the misguided assumption that North Korea never engages in provocations as long as it is involved in negotiations. Beyond that, however, Pyongyang would quickly realize the talks were a sham and walk out or initiate a provocation to force terms more to its liking.
The latest iteration of this story was linked to the recent visit to the United States by Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Sung Hwan. Kim, it was rumored, would be pressured to acquiesce to a U.S. plan to provide food aid and reengage North Korea. Subsequent “softer” statements by the Lee administration “proved” the validity of the rumors.
But we’ve heard these rumors before and they proved false. For example in early 2011, the South Korean media was replete with articles of renewed inter-Korean outreach efforts by both Pyongyang and Seoul. North Korea’s New Years Day speech reportedly signaled the regime shifting from provocation to engagement. President Lee Myung Bak’s subsequent comments were depicted as “a dramatic policy reversal” opening the door for reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and returning to inter-Korean talks and multilateral nuclear negotiations.
But the reality is that, both then and now, there is much less than meets the eye to these supposed policy shifts. Seoul and Washington have been reiterating their existing policies of highly conditional offers of diplomacy laced with preconditions. As such, the governments’ messages reflect far greater policy continuity than change.
The confusion may result from the two-track policies that Washington and Seoul are pursuing, incorporating both good and bad cop tactics. The administrations try to strike a balance between diplomacy and threats. Over time, priorities between the two tracks may ebb and flow as does the intensity of the rhetoric. Media reports often contain oversimplified interpretations of a complex message by analysts, some of whom favor a return to the unconditional engagement of the past.
To be sure, the Obama administration sees a downside to a total lack of contact with North Korea and seeks a return to dialogue. The degree of enthusiasm for reaching out to Pyongyang can vary by department or even individual policymaker. But each time Washington thought of reestablishing contact, North Korea scotched any initiative by attacking, threatening, or storming out of meetings with South Korea.
So far, the Obama administration has not become so overly eager for progress as to abandon necessary preconditions or strain relations with Seoul. Let’s hope it remains that way. And let’s not forget that it was North Korea that severed communications with Seoul in 2009 and repeatedly vowed never to talk with the Lee administration. Yet, despite these vows, Pyongyang still periodically proposes lowering tensions through dialogue, while violating existing rules of engagement designed to prevent conflict.
But none of this precludes the potential for an eventual resumption of dialogue with North Korea. But additional steps are first necessary to better prepare the diplomatic battlefield. The most critical is to more rigorously enforce international sanctions against North Korea and those countries, companies, and banks that facilitate Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs and its illicit activities.
It is also important to enter into negotiations without any illusions. Resuming the talks would merely return the combatants to the ring. The Six Party Talks “achievements” to date have been merely a series of vaguely written compromises that papered over differences rather than resolving them. So the most difficult work lays ahead.
The negotiations didn’t fail as a result of the “hostile policies” of the United States or South Korea. Rather, it was North Korea’s repeated failure to comply with its commitments. The talks eventually collapsed in 2008 because Pyongyang rejected a verification accord. North Korea’s unveiling of a covert uranium facility in late 2010 makes achieving a comprehensive agreement exponentially more difficult since it would require far more intrusive verification measures than any contemplated in 2008.
Even if dialogue resumes, there is little optimism that negotiations would be successful. Pyongyang has repeatedly dashed the hopes of those advocating engagement and the current level of distrust is not conducive to negotiations. Pyongyang has always demanded change of others and Washington and Seoul were repeatedly willing to acquiesce.
Now it is time for North Korea to change this paradigm by showing it is willing to move forward. Tangible steps would be for Pyongyang to first have IAEA inspectors return to Yongbyon, including uranium-related facilities; resume its Six Party Talks dismantlement obligations; and provide the required complete and accurate data declaration, including uranium information. The ball is in Pyongyang’s court.
Bruce Klingner is a Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Daily NK