A Familiar Pitch

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

IT WOULD be easy to dismiss North Korea's diplomacy as crude, mendacious and comically repetitive -- if only it had not proved so effective. Over the past 15 years, the nuclear-armed Stalinist state has yo-yoed between bellicose provocations directed at South Korea, Japan and the United States and promises of far-reaching cooperation. With each schizophrenic swing it has demanded -- and usually received -- political and economic bribes, sustaining a regime that has starved millions of its people and imprisoned or enslaved millions of others.

The latest hinge between Pyongyang's two facades was provided at the beginning of this month by former president Bill Clinton, who met with dictator Kim Jong Il to win the release of two American journalists. The meeting provided a huge boost for Mr. Kim, who is seeking to restore his authority after a stroke and install a son as his successor, and who had greeted the Obama administration with hostility. His regime abruptly dropped that offensive -- which included new nuclear and missile tests -- and began dispatching envoys who sweetly proposed negotiations with Seoul and Washington.

Once again, there is no subtlety here. North Korea wants to establish direct bilateral talks with the United States -- excluding China, Japan and other members of the "six-party" group organized by the Bush administration. Having fractured the leverage provided by the six-party alliance, it would then demand more U.S. economic and political concessions in exchange for promises to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear and missile programs. It sold the same bill of goods to the two previous U.S. administrations; in both those cases, Mr. Kim reneged on his commitments and returned to brinkmanship. As former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger recently wrote on the opposite page, this pattern of behavior not only has kept the regime economically afloat but has also allowed it to steadily improve and protect its nuclear arsenal without incurring severe economic sanctions or prolonged isolation.

The Obama administration has been saying that it intends to break this cycle. It has taken some steps in the right direction by renewing the squeeze on North Korea's finances and winning approval of a U.N. resolution cracking down on Pyongyang's arms trafficking. Encouragingly, a ship reportedly carrying North Korean weapons to Iran was seized by the United Arab Emirates this month. The administration has said that North Korea must return to the six-party negotiations. But, in keeping with its belief in dialogue with rogue states, it also has appointed a special envoy for North Korea, Stephen W. Bosworth; the State Department says he will be dispatched to Asia soon for consultations on how to respond to North Korea's latest offers. Earlier this year, Mr. Bosworth declared his readiness to go to Pyongyang "whenever it appears to be useful" and hinted at "incentives" for the regime. If that occurs without a decisive change in North Korean behavior, Mr. Kim's crude but effective diplomacy will have triumphed again.

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