March 5, 2007 | Commentary on Asia
Some have gotten a bit giddy - or a bit nervous - about the prospects for vastly improved U.S.-North Korean relations coming out of the bilateral talks that start this week.
In a word: Don't.
Just like city streets during the transition from the deep freeze of winter to the thaw of spring, the road to better relations between Pyongyang and Washington will be chock-full of deep, treacherous potholes that will take a lot of repair.
So what does the path to perdition, er, to normalized ties with the Stalinist state look like?
First, we must resolve the nuclear issue to our satisfaction - plain and simple. As you recall, last October, North Korea lit off a small-yield plutonium bomb, becoming the ninth card-carrying member of the nuclear-weapons club.
Last month, at the Six Party Talks in Beijing, Pyongyang agreed to shut down its Yongbyong nuclear facility - the fissile material source of its blast - in exchange for $300 million in fuel aid and direct talks with Washington.
That's a good - but controversial - first step, since it will at least prevent the Kim Jong Il regime from producing more fissile material for more nuclear weapons. (Critics of the deal see it differently - as rewarding bad behavior.)
Making matters more complicated, in Senate testimony last week, a senior intelligence official said he wasn't highly confident about the status of a second North Korean nuclear program.
This goes back to 2002, when we accused Pyongyang of cheating on its 1994 no-nukes promises by having a second, undisclosed nuclear program based on uranium, courtesy of Pakistan's prodigious proliferator, A.Q. Khan.
The administration's sudden doubts about this matter a lot, because the North Koreans have never really admitted to an uranium program - except in a fit of pique when we confronted them. They may now deny the existence of a second program, citing faulty U.S. intelligence. And any deal with Pyongyang has to cover all its nuclear programs.
Even if we can get North Korea to verifiably denuclearize - and that's a big if - there are lots of hurdles before we open a shiny, new embassy just off Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square.
The regime still has get off the U.S. government's State Sponsors of Terrorism list, for example. That may not be too hard: Pyongyang hasn't really been in the terrorism business since the late 1980's when its agents blew up a South Korean airliner. It remains on the list (which triggers punitive financial/economic sanctions) mainly because it still harbors a few superannuated Japanese Red Army hijackers from the 1970s.
A bigger issue is the United States (and the United Nations) are still technically at war with North Korea (and China). A final Korean War peace pact was never reached, and the conflict languishes under a 1953 armistice. One sticking point here is Pyongyang has historically wanted a bilateral peace treaty with the Washington, both to elevate its own stature and to dis its rival, Seoul. Washington generally prefers a North-South peace treaty.
Once a peace treaty is inked, the United States could lift the economic/financial sanctions slapped on North Korea by the Eisenhower administration, opening the way for trade and investment. Then, too, Washington would also insist that North Korea's government stop counterfeiting U.S. currency, trafficking drugs (e.g., methamphetamines and heroin) and making fake pharmaceuticals (e.g., Viagra).
Other nations have their North Korean "wish lists," and may pressure us to hold off recognizing Pyongyang until the regime meets various conditions.
South Korea would welcome closer U.S.-North Korean ties to pave the way for better North-South ties. But Japan wants the return of the tens - maybe hundreds - of its citizens who were kidnapped to train Pyongyang's spies over the years. Others will want to throw North Korea's deplorable human rights record into the mix. North Korea's own want-list includes the lifting of financial/economic sanctions, unfreezing of assets, access to trade/aid/investment, diplomatic recognition by Tokyo and Washington - and a security guarantee against future attack.
That last point is particularly controversial: Pyongyang is focused laser-like on regime survival, but do we really want to tie our hands considering the regime's odious nature? Tough call, especially if Kim demands it in exchange for his nukes.
Talks on normalizing ties are fine. In fact, bilateral happy-chats may keep North Korea from doing something worse - like helping Iran with its nuclear program.
Without question, better U.S.-North Korean relations must be predicated on defanging all Pyongyang's nuclear programs.
But considering North Korea's near "zero-sum" negotiating stance, getting traction on any issue will be tough. Improving ties without surrendering U.S. interests may be darn near impossible - and certainly won't come quickly.
Peter Brookes is a columnist forThe New York Post, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."
First appeared in the New York Post