As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright clinks glasses with Dear Leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang during her
trip there beginning today (whatever happened to democracy and human rights?), it is a good time to take a deep breath and assess where this political roller coaster of North Korea policy is going.
We have barely had time to digest the last spectacular Photo Opportunity, the remarkable image of North Korea’s top general, Vice Marshal Cho Myong-rok, in the White House dressed in full military regalia chatting with Bill Clinton. Mrs. Albright’s visit to North Korea may top even that. But before drowning in symbolism, a good starting point would be to locate where the symbols stop and the substance begins.
Gen. Cho’s visit was rich in imagery, but short on concrete achievement. It would be unfair to dismiss the importance of the visit of Kim Jong-il’s special envoy, armed with a letter from the Dear Leader to the head of the Free World. At last, after nearly eight years of talking to midlevel North Koreans with no authority, the Clinton administration is finally talking to the few at the top who matter in Pyongyang.
Mr. Clinton may follow on the heels of Mrs. Albright to coddle a few dictators of his own next month. Gen. Cho’s visit did have some modest concrete results: North Korea pledged to continue its moratorium on missile tests and to redouble its commitment to the Agreed Framework.
However, the Joint Communique issued at the end of Gen. Cho’s visit that sets the stage for Mrs. Albright’s trip, is an odd document that can be read different ways. At one level, it is a statement of grand intent. It proclaims that both sides, “have decided to take steps to fundamentally improve their bilateral relations,” that “neither government would have hostile intent toward the other” and that both sides are committed “to build a new relationship free from past enmity.” Who can argue with such goals?
But like the pre-World War II Kellog-Briand Pact that outlawed war, simply declaring peace does not make it so. In the real world, there are still 12,000 artillery tubes pointed toward Seoul, chemical weapons, Scuds, missiles and 600,000 troops all within 100 kilometers of the Demilitarized Zone. Not to mention No Dong and Taepo Dong missiles, and unaccounted for plutonium. Is it a good idea to move toward replacing the Armistice with “new peace arrangements,” if there is no parallel movement to reduce the military threat?
Against that background, the communique may also be read as filled with pious, empty platitudes. For example, it says such profound things as the two sides agreed “there are a variety of means to reduce tension … new opportunities to improve the full range of relations … develop mutually beneficial economic cooperation.”
Of course, improving U.S.-North Korean relations is a positive step. But don’t expect normalization anytime soon. It took nearly eight difficult years after the Nixon visit to China to normalize Sino-American relations. And whether the issue is proliferation, terrorism, human rights, trade access, or national security, American concerns about North Korea, a candidate for the most repressive totalitarian regime in the world, guarantee a long and difficult road ahead under the best of circumstances. This week’s visit by Mrs. Albright may see minor progress on removing North Korea from the U.S. terrorist list and/or opening liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang (this was negotiated four years ago, but the North backed away).
The U.S. is right to pursue its dialogue with Pyongyang. But there is a danger here that the new U.S. diplomacy toward North Korea may resemble the old: chasing after Pyongyang trying to have a meeting for the sake of “process.” Why Pyongyang chose now to respond to the Perry initiative of nearly 16 months ago remains a mystery. Perhaps it dawned on Kim Jong-il that Bill Clinton will be history in three months, and his successor may be less generous toward, and more demanding of, North Korea.
There are large issues outstanding, most prominently North Korea’s missile deployments, development and exports, and the need to reduce tension indeed, to begin a process of major conventional force reductions on the Korean Peninsula to give reality to the noble intention of ending confrontation and enmity.
If a legacy-seeking Bill Clinton goes to Pyongyang without a serious prospect of a major breakthrough, it would be a reprehensible dumbing down of American diplomacy, reducing it (and Mr. Clinton’s legacy) to his final photo op, the Permanent Campaign that the administration is known for. An ironic fate for the man who campaigned in 1992 against “coddling dictators.”
The great American writer Ernest Hemingway once advised that one should never confuse action with movement. That may be a good lens through which to view the new U.S.-North Korean diplomacy that is unfolding. Clearly Pyongyang has made some decisions to improve ties to Washington.
In the end, there are two fundamental issues that will determine the possibilities of both U.S. relations with North Korea and of North-South reconciliation. First, Pyongyang must decide whether the risk of opening and reforming its economy is less than the risk of gradual decline. It has been tinkering on the margins of reform for nearly a decade, but so incrementally that little change has occurred. Second, it must be willing to trade its military threat for economic help and security assurances.
It remains to be seen if the North is prepared to pay a price for real progress on both fronts or is only pursuing more sophisticated tactics in trying to get benefits at low cost by agreeing to meetings.