Within Washington, a consensus seems to have emerged that the Obama administration will have to wait for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to die before re-engaging with Pyongyang.
It worked so well with Fidel Castro.
The idea that we could simply wait for Mr. Kim to be replaced by someone more pliable is a fantasy. When Mr. Kim disappeared from public view in August after what appears to have been a stroke, those hopes grew. Although a gaunt Mr. Kim reappeared last month, looking slightly more alive than his puppet-likeness in “Team America,” there is no evidence that either he or his regime is on its last legs. Nor does Pyongyang seem content to let us wait Mr. Kim out. North Korea is now moving toward reprocessing more plutonium for its growing stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Although deeply injurious to U.S. interests, nothing that Kim Jong-il has done is irrational, crazy or, that old orientalist favorite, inscrutable. The North Koreans have repeatedly stated that they would abandon their nuclear weapons for a normal relationship with the United States. In pursuit of this goal, North Korea seems to be following the simplest — and most effective — strategy from game theory: tit for tat.
Using tit for tat, a player cooperates on the first turn of the game, then does whatever his opponent did on the previous turn. In addition to being simple, tit for tat is also incredibly effective, as the political scientist Robert Axelrod demonstrated in “The Evolution of Cooperation.” The fact that the North Korean regime remains in power — a fossil from the era of Stalinism — is an impressive, if disheartening, feat. The North Koreans, in other words, may be difficult, but they are not terribly complicated.
As a strategy, however, tit for tat is not perfect. “The trouble with tit for tat,” as Mr. Axelrod wrote, “is that once a feud gets started, it can continue indefinitely. … The injuries can echo back and forth until the original violation is lost in the distant past.”
Sound familiar? Mr. Axelrod was talking about the Middle East, among other scenarios, but he could easily have described the last two decades of relations between the United States and North Korea. Each side assumes the other has malign intentions — with some considerable reason, I might add.
And neither is particularly well-informed about the other. To pick one example, almost everything that North Korea has done, since November, has been discussed in Washington in terms of the “message” Mr. Kim is sending to the incoming Obama administration. This is a bizarre narcissism. It seems equally plausible that North Korea’s actions were for domestic audiences or the South Korean government, which under President Lee Myun-bak has cut off food and fuel shipments.
In the most recent episode, Pyongyang launched a rocket — they say it was a space launch, we say it was a missile test. It doesn’t really make any difference. The Obama administration secured Chinese and Russian support for a tough U.N. Security Council declaration condemning the launch. Pyongyang announced that it was “never” returning to Six Party Talks that broke in December and threw International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors out of the country. South Korea announced that it would join the Proliferation Security Initiative; Pyongyang called the move an “act of war.”
Tit, tat, tit. Do you see a pattern?
The solution in this case is neither to continue the escalation — that’s how we got the North Korean nuclear test in October 2006 — nor to ignore the provocation.
Rather, the solution is to develop a policy that, in effect, returns only a fraction of a tit for a tat. This means provocations are punished, but the “echo” of retaliation is dampened.
By this standard, the Obama administration — fearing the appearance of weakness in its first few weeks — overplayed its hand. To be fair, most observers were surprised that China and Russia agreed to the tough text. Team Obama didn’t know its own strength.
Now, having watched the situation escalate, the Obama administration must find a relatively mild punitive measure to express displeasure over North Korea’s action that does not escalate the situation. Then — after a decent interval — the Obama administration needs to find a modest opening to begin exploring whether North Korea will abandon its ballistic- missile and nuclear-weapons programs.
The particular steps are less important than the high-level political investment that needs to be made. The president shouldn’t ignore North Korea’s provocations, but he needs to invest in the long, painful process of testing North Korea’s repeated insistence that it is willing to trade nuclear weapons for a better relationship with the United States. This will, most likely, eventually require bilateral negotiations.
Lately, some North Koreans have privately suggested that having “weaponized” its nuclear deterrent, Pyongyang is only willing to negotiate capping its program. On the other hand, North Korean officials have basically stuck to the old talking points and bromides.
Would North Korea give up its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons in exchange for a better relationship with the United States? Anyone who claims to know the answer is not being honest. There is only one way to find out: through negotiations.
• Jeffrey Lewis is director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation.