The Plan That Moved Pyongyang

By Philip Zelikow
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

In 2006, the headlines from North Korea were depressing. Pyongyang was headed down the path of escalation: missile tests in July, testing a nuclear weapon in October. Now, 2007 has opened with encouraging news -- a breakthrough in Beijing. In effect, the agreement announced last week was answering the bomb test with a successful test of diplomacy. But this deal makes more sense if we understand the broader strategy, set in motion some time ago, that is starting to play out.

In 2005, the United States energized its flagging North Korea efforts on two tracks. One was diplomatic, the other defensive. The diplomatic strategy was never just about North Korea. The Korean Peninsula has repeatedly been a battleground for the great powers in Northeast Asia. The United States, particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Robert Zoellick, saw a way to break this mold: China, Japan and Russia were flexing new diplomatic muscle. The North Korean problem could be an opportunity to unite potential rivals in common effort, an enterprise without precedent in Northeast Asia.

The defensive approach responded to North Korea's outlaw strategy for economic survival. Protecting the integrity of the international financial system was just one of the ways to show the North's leaders that trafficking in contraband was not a sustainable solution to their problems.

By late 2005, both policies had been set in motion. In September, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and his counterparts from South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan and Russia had negotiated a joint framework for comprehensive diplomatic action. Meanwhile, enforcement actions that had been pending against North Korea's partners in money laundering, such as Macau's Banco Delta Asia, were rolled out.

Then the Bush administration paused. It had been preparing to follow up with new diplomatic initiatives, but the administration was uncertain and divided about how much further to go until North Korea moved. As for the North Koreans, they were indeed hit hard as members of the international financial community became increasingly reluctant to handle their suspect transactions. Furious, they boycotted the six-party talks and tried to advertise their own strength, a course that culminated in the nuclear test last October.

After that test, Rice leaned hard on the regional diplomatic relationships she had nurtured. First -- and fast -- came U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, the most potent action against North Korea that the United Nations had taken since 1953, when the Korean War was suspended.

Having shown the North that it had underestimated regional solidarity, the United States next moved to change the dynamic, to break the cycle of escalation. That month, Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Bush came to a strategic understanding about North Korea. They agreed that diplomacy needed to be given another chance. But the diplomacy couldn't just be a gloss, busywork that only gave the appearance of action.

To turn this strategic understanding into policy, Rice developed a two-stage strategy. First the six parties would move quickly to offset the nuclear test with unprecedented commitments from the North Koreans to stop and reverse their nuclear development and to bring back the system of monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Some called this an "early harvest" -- testing whether the ground could yield anything fruitful.

If it did, then in the second stage the six parties would follow up. But rather than returning to the old, painful pattern of piecemeal nuclear bribery, the diplomacy would have to move simultaneously on multiple fronts: scrapping the nuclear program, building normal economic cooperation, tackling the normalization of relations and -- perhaps most engaging -- getting at the unresolved issues of the Korean War.

Thus, later in October, Rice shuttled across Northeast Asia to reassure allies and win support for this diplomatic design, especially in Beijing.

Pressure had its place. So did diplomatic ingenuity. One Chinese official said to Rice, "It is better to play with two hands." And talking with the North Koreans would not be a problem, Rice concluded, if doing so did not undermine the vital regional foundation and if the North Koreans actually had something to say.

Last week's deal, skillfully negotiated by Rice and Hill with their counterparts, delivers a plan for the "early harvest." A "good, initial step" was Rice's careful phrase. The broader context in which the agreement was reached helps explain what she meant. The United States and its negotiating partners have successfully carried out a diplomatic test.

The next two months will show whether the design remains valid. Rice has agreed to a six-party meeting of foreign ministers, including the North Koreans. We will see whether the Bush administration and its counterparts can launch the second stage, when the desired outcomes to be produced from this diplomacy may finally come into view.

The writer is a history professor at the University of Virginia. From 2005 until 2007 he was counselor of the State Department.


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