[Viewpoint] Is U.S. prepared for N. Korea talks?

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[Viewpoint] Is U.S. prepared for N. Korea talks?

The U.S. response to the North Korean sinking of the Cheonan was carefully orchestrated with South Korea to maximize solidarity among democratic allies and to keep pressure on Pyongyang, and secondarily, Beijing. That strategy reached its apex with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the region in July and the commencement of what will likely be a sustained campaign of joint exercises and enhanced deterrence between the United States and Korea.

The administration resisted pressure from China to return to the six-party talks and move past Cheonan. The administration was so cautious about getting out of step with Seoul that Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg cancelled an academic meeting that had been scheduled in New York with North Korean chief negotiator Kim Gye Kwan in the spring. In bilateral meetings with Chinese officials, the Obama administration was crystal clear that the United States would take the pressure off Pyongyang by returning to “business as usual” in the diplomatic arena.

But what next? The administration appears to be growing uncomfortable with the complete lack of engagement with North Korea right now.

They recognize that there has been a historic correlation between lack of contact with Pyongyang and North Korean provocations such as nuclear or missile tests. That correlation does not necessarily prove that a lack of engagement causes provocations, but at a minimum the vacuum in U.S.-DPRK communications can lead to surprises.

There is therefore a growing feeling that the United States needs some authoritative North Koreans to talk to in order to understand and anticipate developments and communicate ways to defuse a crises. The other reason to talk to the North Koreans is to continue testing their intentions with regard to the nuclear program, maintaining some negotiation channel in anticipation of even the remote possibility that leadership changes could create some openings for progress on the nuclear and other issues with the North.

The Obama administration appears to recognize that it cannot do what the Bush administration did in 2007, when the policy switched abruptly from pressure after the nuclear test to almost unconditional negotiations over Yongbyon. The Obama team’s review of the negotiating record in 2007-2008 and assessment of the current political situation in North Korea can only lead to recognition that the prospects for meaningful progress on the nuclear issue are extremely low.

So if the administration is uncomfortable moving into next year without some dialogue with the North, but deeply skeptical about the prospects for any results from talks, what can be done?

First, the administration will be unlikely to pay Pyongyang just for returning to the table. It was a mistake to do that in 2007 when the United States returned money to Pyongyang that had been frozen in Banco Delta Asia, and it would be an even bigger mistake today to lift sanctions or otherwise make a “down payment” to the North. That much seems to be clear to top officials in Washington.

Second, the administration will be careful about maintaining its relationship with Seoul. President Obama has developed a strong personal trust in President Lee Myung-bak. Of course, there are different views in Seoul about when and how to re-engage with the North. But whatever red lines Lee gives to Obama are very likely to guide the approach of the U.S. to re-engaging the North.

Third, the administration appears uninterested in returning to the failed negotiating line pursued in the last two years of the Bush administration. At that time, the Bush administration focused narrowly on accountability for the plutonium at Yongbyon and set aside larger problems such as the highly enriched uranium program and outward proliferation to Syria.

In the end, North Korea reneged and tested a nuclear device anyway, even after the Bush administration lifted sanctions and the incoming Obama administration promised to pursue an engagement approach. The result was enormous damage to U.S. credibility in Asia and unhelpful signals to others like Iran. This time, the administration is more likely to broaden the agenda beyond Yongbyon to include missiles, highly enriched uranium, proliferation and humanitarian issues.

There is a certain irony in this, since this is just what the Bush administration proposed to Pyongyang in 2001 after criticizing the Clinton administration for focusing too narrowly on Yongbyon and the Agreed Framework and ignoring the North Korean missile and conventional threats and the human rights situation in the North.

Still, broadening the agenda makes sense if the purpose of talks is to reopen contacts in an environment in which progress on any single issue is deemed highly unlikely.

It is not clear when or where U.S.-DPRK talks might resume, but if the Obama administration is skillful, it will manage to resume a useful level of interaction with Pyongyang without abandoning either pressure or close coordination with Seoul. The administration will also have to avoid the trap of seeking a “grand bargain.”

The only grand bargain Pyongyang would accept would be acknowledgement of its nuclear weapons status and increased cash payments and sanctions-reduction in exchange for pledges not to proliferate further. That is a devil’s bargain that would destroy deterrence and U.S. credibility and give Pyongyang room to continue weaponizing its current fissile material in anticipation of the next big provocation. No U.S. administration will go for that deal.

So be prepared for modest interaction and low expectations.

*The writer is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

By Michael J. Green
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