Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Pyongyang visit

Peter Howard at Duck of Minerva greets Chris Hill's visit to Pyongyang with fairly effusive praise, arguing that the "reverse course" in North Korea policy undertaken by Hill with Condoleeza Rice's support has begun to yield some positive results. He points to the imminent closing of Yongbyon and the admission of IAEA inspectors as signs that the new approach to North Korea is working.

Meanwhile, at One Free Korea, Joshua Stanton excoriates the administration for its embrace of bilateral negotiations with North Korea.

So which is it — fool's errand or successful shuttle diplomacy?

Dare I say neither? I cannot possibly summon the rage Stanton directs at the administration and supporters of negotiations outside of the administration. What choices does the US have? The use of force? More sanctions? Doing nothing? Given that it's not altogether clear what direct threat, if any, North Korea poses to the US — the possibility of nuclear handover to terrorists or other states cannot be ruled out, but I have yet to see any report that suggests that this is highly probable — the only sensible option for the US seems to be trying to devise a modus vivendi that is some combination of deterrence, pressure from China, and monetary rewards for good behavior, while planning with the region's other powers for the post-Kim era.

In that sense, the goalposts have indeed shifted, because it should be increasingly clear to all that fully verifiable disarmament is unlikely to result from these negotiations. And so US efforts should be directed to securing the best possible arrangement in the short term. This is a great illustration of the nature of power. For all America's attributional power — its military might, its economic strength, its population and territory — the US has very little power in this situation. More sanctions? Useless. A war for regime change? The consequences are unfathomable. So if negotiating directly with Pyongyang, and countenancing the use of concessions to induce North Korea to behave gives the US more leverage, so be it.

Meanwhile, Japan bears much of the burden for the irrelevance of the six-party talks, given the Abe government's refusal to participate in an agreement until "progress" is realized on the abductions issue. To abstain from shaping the modus vivendi is a serious abdication of responsibility on the part of Japan. Why should the US stand around and wait for Japan? No one should underestimate the hunger on the part of Assistant Secretary Hill and Secretary Rice for an agreement that they can sell as proof that their global diplomatic approach is working. This quote from a New York Times article over the weekend caught my eye: "'Condi knows she needs a big win here,' said a senior administration official who has dealt with her often on North Korea. 'They know they are getting nowhere on Iraq, and they probably won’t get far on Iran. She needs to show that she can reduce at least one big threat.'"

That said, the desire on the part of the US to reach some kind of acceptable arrangement should not be mistaken for the availability of an objectively sound agreement. The only party likely emerge from these talks completely or mostly happy is North Korea.

1 comment:

AC said...

I think your analysis is mostly correct. As military force is not a viable option, the US is faced with the choice of either negotiating with the DPRK or trying to choke it to death financially. China and South Korea would do what they can to prevent the latter from taking place, so the former is the only option. When there were no talks, North Korea was churning out plutonium and testing a bomb. The US really has few options other than bribery at this point. A deal is probably better than no deal, but whatever gets done will almost assuredly be a bad deal. Too much time has been wasted.

It's worth remembering that Yongbyon was sealed until December 2002 and was not producing plutonium. There is no deal that will even get us back to that point.