[Viewpoint] Why would the U.S. talk to the North?

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[Viewpoint] Why would the U.S. talk to the North?

The Obama administration has made little secret of the fact that it is preparing for what some senior officials call “a new phase of engagement” with North Korea. South Korean and Japanese officials have been given a general preview of U.S. thinking by senior State Department officials, and there have been probes through the North Korean mission at the United Nations about whether monitoring arrangements could be restored that would allow resumption of U.S. food aid to the North. This raises two questions: what does the Obama administration hope to gain from dialogue and what is it willing to pay?

One thing the administration does not seem to expect is a deal on denuclearization. Pyongyang has been unequivocal about its intention to become a full nuclear weapons state by 2012, and the administration knows that the North is rushing to marry nuclear weapons to ballistic missiles in order to reverse its declining strategic position on the peninsula.

How could a denuclearization dialogue even be structured? The most one could imagine would be a return to the September 2005 joint agreement of the six-party talks, but that agreement predated two nuclear tests and further revelations about the North’s uranium enrichment program. Even if Pyongyang pledged fealty to that agreement, could any U.S. government believe it now? Few in the Obama administration seem prepared to do so.

A more reasonable logic for talks is concern that North Korea may be pushed into a corner and turn to ever more desperate provocations if there is pressure alone and no dialogue. My CSIS and Georgetown University colleague Victor Cha has catalogued the correlation between North Korean provocations and an absence of dialogue, and his CSIS study appears to have been influential on thinking in the administration. However, it is important to understand that this correlation does not prove causality. In fact, Pyongyang often controls when dialogue is turned on and off, and therefore whether or not diplomacy will be a real constraint on DPRK plans for military, nuclear or other provocations.

Nevertheless, maintaining channels of communication can prove important given the uncertainty about the succession to Kim Jong-un and the danger that the North could miscalculate or misunderstand U.S. intentions. Dialogue is also useful to keep open the possibility of serious denuclearization talks at some point in the future, even if it seems impossible now.

What is such a dialogue worth? Pyongyang will certainly try to make Washington pay for diplomacy by demanding sanctions-reduction and other steps - warning implicitly and explicitly that the North will end the talks and create new crises if its demands are not met.

The most important thing policy makers will have to remember going into this new phase of engagement is that we cannot want talks more than the North. Pyongyang must understand two things: first, that international pressure will continue until the threat from the North is verifiably reduced; and second, that a return to crisis mode will lead to increased pressure on the North, not concessions.

But the dialogue may never get to that point. The Obama administration has made it clear that U.S. engagement of the North will not move faster than North-South dialogue. Despite some changed tone from North Korea in recent weeks, it is not at all certain that Pyongyang will be able to meet even minimal expectations in the South that nuclear issues will be addressed or that the North will show sincerity about the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks. Nor is it clear that the North will be able to meet U.S. expectations about transparency and monitoring that would be necessary to resume food aid. Neither Seoul nor Washington can retreat too far from these conditions.

In other words, despite the increasing talk of a new phase of U.S. engagement with the North, the prospects for success and the administration’s actual expectations for the talks remain low. The threat from North Korea is now too serious to yet again place false hope in dialogue. That was not the case in 1994 when the Agreed Framework was negotiated or in 2003 when the six-party talks commenced.

However, the world has learned a painful lesson about the real intentions of the North since then. Quietly, the major focus of the United States is likely to remain on enforcing United Nations Security Council sanctions; strengthening deterrence capabilities with allies; and interdicting North Korean proliferation activities.

The administration appears to see talks as a necessary complement to that strategy, not a replacement. There is no clear champion for shifting from pressure to dialogue in the administration, and pro-engagement voices on the left are having little influence on the White House. Meanwhile, the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives will be scrutinizing U.S. interactions with the North, providing a break on any hint of irrational exuberance about diplomacy with the North.

Finally, one important factor shaping the administration’s approach will be the Blue House itself. President Obama has reportedly developed deep trust in President Lee Myung-bak’s judgment on North Korea, particularly after the South’s steady handling of the Cheonan attack. If the Blue House maintains that steadiness in dealing with Pyongyang in the weeks ahead - remaining consistent in principle and prepared for dialogue if and when the North demonstrates it is serious - then the White House will find its own compass for dialogue with the North.

This would be a much happier story, of course, if the United States were entering into dialogue with the prospect of achieving a verifiable agreement with the North. Then again, it would be a much worse story if the United States were entering into dialogue in the naive hope that this time Pyongyang will be serious.

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

By Michael Green
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