Moral Surrender to Pyongyang

By Michael Gerson
Friday, December 19, 2008

It is not unprecedented for a diplomat to have starkly different views from the president he serves. After George Washington's administration negotiated Jay's Treaty with Britain, the Thomas Jefferson faction in the government went into disloyal revolt. James Monroe -- Jefferson's protege and the American minister to France -- urged French officials to disregard all messages from the president and assured them that they were free to retaliate against American shipping.

The most recent example of such vigorous, diplomatic independence would be Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the architect of America's North Korea policy. It is difficult to imagine a Bush administration official more at odds with the president's broad foreign policy instincts. Hill has been a tireless advocate of preemptive diplomatic concessions and the exclusion of human rights issues from reports and negotiations.

In the case of North Korea, however, Hill has operated with the full support of President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The argument was simple: In an impossible situation -- facing an infantile and possibly ill dictator with a nuclear weapon -- Hill's approach was worth a try. China was skillfully enlisted in an effort to pressure and isolate North Korea. Concessions were made in exchange for the resumption of negotiations, incremental progress and vague promises of future cooperation. Fuel was shipped. North Korea was removed from the sponsors-of-terrorism list.

Some have called this appeasement. It is more like bribery -- with a special emphasis on getting North Korea to part with at least 30 kilos (66 pounds) of plutonium. Hill has summarized his approach this way: "If you give up 30 kilos, we will sign a bilateral assistance program."

In some foreign policy situations -- especially when a cooperative dictator is looking for face-saving cover -- bribery can be justified.

But this strategy on North Korea presents two problems. Its leader, Kim Jong Il, has shown nothing but bad faith over the years -- testing a nuclear weapon, launching ballistic missiles and apparently aiding nuclear proliferation to Syria. Kim seems to realize that without nuclear capabilities, his country would be nothing more than a pathetic, forgotten backwater -- the ruined estate of a murderous voluptuary.

Also, it should now be clear that our Chinese partners hold significantly different priorities from ours. Chinese diplomats push for greater American concessions and oppose tough economic sanctions because their primary objective is a stable North Korea on their border, not a denuclearized North Korea.

So now the negotiations have broken down because North Korea refused meaningful verification, and Hill is left searching for silver linings. Concluded one headline: "NKorea nuclear talks fruitful despite collapse: US envoy."

The failure of negotiations doesn't mean they should not have been tried. But Hill's approach has imposed considerable costs.

As a practical matter, Hill's exclusion of humanitarian issues in negotiations -- including the issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens -- has offended America's Japanese allies.

As a matter of judgment, Hill has accompanied his approach to North Korea with a crude moral equivalence. Recently questioned about North Korean human rights abuses, Hill responded, "Each country, including our own, needs to improve its human rights record."

This is staggering from a Bush official, or any American official. The United States is a flawed but noble nation. Kim's North Korea is a vast prison camp, practicing what Elie Wiesel and Vaclav Havel, in a report to the United Nations, termed "crimes against humanity." Comparing human rights in the United States and North Korea is not national humility, it is a libel against our country and the trivialization of immense human suffering -- a kind of moral blindness sometimes confused with diplomatic sophistication.

In practice, this approach is simplistic. It posits a binary choice between diplomatic engagement and the defense of American values. If we want to get something accomplished with North Korea -- or China or Iran -- we need to play down human rights. But this diplomatic approach is awkward for a nation committed to liberty, inviting charges of hypocrisy. And it squanders one of America's greatest soft-power advantages -- the appeal of human rights to the next generation of dissidents and (one hopes) leaders in North Korea, Iran and elsewhere.

The negotiations with North Korea were worth a try. But diplomatic engagement does not require moral surrender. And when diplomats such as Christopher Hill are deployed, it does not signify that the adults have arrived. It means that hope is fading.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company