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What is most likely to denuclearize North Korea

Monday, April 12, 2010; A16

ONE BACKDROP to President Obama's multilateral summit on nuclear issues this week is North Korea's continuing refusal to abandon its nuclear weapons program or even negotiate about it. Six-party talks, intended to involve South and North Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States, have come to a standstill. But if diplomacy is stalemated, other events are roiling the region.

Intelligence about the isolated and repressive North Korean regime is notoriously limited, but many analysts perceive unprecedented instability. Dictator Kim Jong Il, who inherited power from his father, is ailing. A recent attempt at currency reform ended in spectacular failure. More North Koreans are illegally crossing and communicating across the border with China. "North Korea is languishing in the throes of a deepening, multidimensional and complex existential crisis," Chun Yung-woo, South Korean vice minister of foreign affairs and trade, said at a conference in Seoul last week (where he said he was speaking in a personal capacity).

The uncertainty was punctuated by the tragic March 26 sinking of a South Korean navy corvette near North Korean waters, with 58 sailors rescued but 46 lost. An investigation is proceeding, led by South Korea but with U.S. participation, to determine whether weapons on board accidentally detonated or the ship was attacked; in the meantime, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has been admirably cautious in refusing to speculate on the cause. If a North Korean mine or torpedo is proven to have been responsible, however, the South will feel compelled to respond, though probably not militarily. At a minimum any prospect for a resumption of talks would be further diminished.

The Obama administration has answered North Korean recalcitrance with "strategic patience," seeking to maintain a unified front with Japan and South Korea and rightly refusing to offer new incentives to North Korea simply to buy its return to the negotiating table. The U.S. hope is that multilateral financial sanctions and the North's worsening economy eventually will force its leaders to give up their nuclear program. But, as Mr. Chun said, "Thus far I have not seen any sign of a genuine interest in denuclearization on their part." Meanwhile Kim Jong Il is said to be planning a trip to Beijing, where he presumably will seek from China the inducements that the United States will not give.

There's debate over whether such Chinese aid would be useful in restarting diplomacy or unhelpful in easing the pressure that alone might someday spur a deal. What's most likely is that it doesn't matter: that the North Korean regime will never give up its nuclear weapons, because it has nothing else -- no legitimacy at home or abroad. As in Iran, the problem is the regime more than the weapons. That's not an argument against engagement with Kim Jong Il any more than with the mullahs. It is an argument for clear-eyed engagement, though -- with a recognition that in the long run only a change in the nature of North Korea's government is likely to solve this problem.

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