[OUTLOOK]'Hawk engagement' by the U.S.Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly's meetings in Pyeongyang early this month marked the first substantive contact by the Bush administration with North Korea, ending a moratorium on such talks that had persisted since it took office. The administration's signals have been mixed; "axis of evil" comments contended with assertions of willingness to engage in an unconditional dialogue. Sept. 11, 2001, further complicated matters; countries possessing weapons of mass destruction were a higher-priority U.S. target. But amid the speculation, there were no meetings between the two sides to test their intentions.
Assistant Secretary Kelly's visit has ended this speculation. What the U.S. administration is pursuing is neither engagement nor containment; it is what might be termed "hawkish engagement." The easiest way to grasp this strategy is to contrast it with the engagement practiced by Kim Dae Jung in his sunshine policy and by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's recent pathbreaking visit to North Korea. Seoul and Tokyo assess North Korea's truculence as deriving from insecurity. Bankrupt, starving, and abandoned by his cold war patrons, Kim Jong-Il has sought mass weapons and missile capabilities as the best way to ensure his survival. The sunshine policy offers Pyeongyang the prospect of humanitarian aid, economic reform, and political integration in the world community in exchange for an end to the proliferation threat.
Like Seoul and Tokyo, the Bush administration still pursues engagement with North Korea, but Washington's version is laced with infinitely more skepticism, far less hope, and a pragmatic calculation of the steps necessary after the policy's eventual failure. Bush hawks pursue engagement not because they seek to reassure Pyeongyang, but because they understand that this is the best way to build a coalition for punishing it. Moving prematurely to coercion, especially in light of last month's advances in Tokyo and Seoul's relations with the North, would elicit little support from allies (let alone China), similar to the publicly unspoken regional concerns during the nuclear crisis in 1994. Following up Mr. Koizumi's summit with the dispatch of a high-level envoy, however, goes through the motions of engagement, avoids alienating the allies, and most important puts the ball in North Korea's court. When Kim Jong-Il drops it (as Bush hawks are confident he will), the allies cannot blame the United States for not trying.
Mr. Kelly did not offer any "carrots" to the North, instead registering in strong terms American concerns about the North's declared and undeclared nuclear programs as well as its missile and conventional military threats. This tight-fisted diplomatic stance resonates well with hawks in the administration, who vowed that they would not fall into the alleged Clintonian trap of "rewarding" bad behavior or "paying" for meetings with the North. Kelly's comprehensive approach, addressing all the issues, also fit well with the hawks' view that the North should not be able to "retail" different elements of its threats against the United States.
But it would not be surprising if in later rounds of negotiation, the United States does offer some incentives to the North. Hawk engagement operates from the view that the most effective pressure against an adversary is a threat to take away something of value. For a regime as decrepit as North Korea, this means first giving it something to lose. Today's carrots (whether provided by Seoul, Tokyo, or Washington) can be tomorrow's sticks.
Finally, Mr. Kelly's recitation of American concerns about the famine and refugee problems in Pyeongyang reflects a break from the past US-DPRK agenda, but one consistent with a hawkish view of humanitarian engagement distinct from the private aid community. Private agencies press for aid as a necessary evil that can help ordinary people even though it props up the regime. For hawks, however, bags of rice imprinted "USA" start a process of separating the public from its despotic leader and creating the foundations for a regime change. As President Bush said in South Korea last February, he found Kim Jong-Il evil but had great "sympathy and empathy for the North Korean people."
Allies have applauded the United States for finally reengaging. Mr. Kelly's visit, however chilly, may eventually lead to aid and other incentives to Pyeongyang that look superficially like Mr. Kim's engagement policy. But the ultimate goal is different. Many critics damned Mr. Bush's "axis of evil" speech as undercutting South Korea's sunshine policy and reflecting a U.S. military wish to keep the peninsula divided. In fact, this may be the first American policy toward the Korean peninsula since 1945 explicitly about reunification.
The writer a professor and director of the American Alliances in Asia Project at Georgetown University.
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