Just back from charm school.

North Korea Uses Live Bait to Lure U.S.

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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In what passes for a charm offensive, North Korea just released one of three Americans it has been holding prisoner. Yesterday's surprise follows North Korea's high-level outreach to South Korea during the Asian Games, its decision to engage, not dismiss, a damning United Nations report on its human rights abuses, and a perverse warning-cum-invitation to the U.S. that thousands of American servicemen's remains from the Korean War risk being lost to "land rezoning and other gigantic nature-remaking projects."

Get ready, Charlie Brown: Kim Jong Lucy is teeing up the football again.

It's no coincidence that North Korea freed Jeffrey Fowle on the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, an agreement that froze North Korea's nuclear program in return for fuel oil and two proliferation-resistant light-water reactors. North Koreans take their anniversaries seriously. Yet before the U.S. responds, it should reflect on the failure of two decades of diplomacy toward North Korea.

Well, not total failure. As Ambassador Robert Gallucci, who negotiated the framework, noted yesterday at the Carnegie Endowment, the agreement shut down nuclear reactors that could have produced 200 kilograms of plutonium each year, enough for many more nuclear devices than the half-dozen or so that North Korea probably has. But after three subsequent North Korean nuclear explosions, the discovery of a clandestine uranium enrichment program, numerous ballistic missile tests, and nasty provocations and clashes with South Korea, only a Dr. Pangloss -- in this case, Sydney Seiler, the Obama administration's representative to the suspended Six-Party talks with North Korea -- could characterize the history of U.S. policy as "not a failure -- just an absence of success."

U.S. policy makers of all stripes swear they've tried everything, and nothing has worked. The problem with the North Koreans, said Victor Cha, a Bush administration veteran also featured at the Carnegie event, is "that they don't want to dance."

Maybe. Or maybe they just want a partner who doesn't abruptly change the music. Within the space of two years, for instance, the U.S. went from offering North Korea a possible presidential visit under Bill Clinton to labeling it a member of the Axis of Evil under George W. Bush.

Now, one of the most important things the U.S. can do is to achieve a bipartisan consensus on how to deal with North Korea. Start with a reality check:

  • North Korea is not about to collapse. Nor is that an outcome that any sane U.S. strategist should want -- think loose nukes, cashiered soldiers from a million-man army, hungry refugees, no history of democratic governance, and social, economic and even linguistic disparities that would make German reunification look like a Sunday picnic.
  • The North has made clear it's not going to give up its nuclear weapons. Setting denuclearization as the precondition for a resumption of talks is a recipe for stalemate.
  • While China can do more to make North Korea behave, it will never do enough. The two nations are no longer "as close as lips and teeth," as the old Chicom adage had it, and Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly badmouths North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, to foreign visitors. Yet even though China still accounts for the majority of North Korea's trade, investment and assistance, the Beijing government won't use its leverage to the point where the pressure triggers instability on its borders.

The U.S. should drop its demand that North Korea pledge to give up its nuclear arsenal as a precondition for resuming negotiations. Of course, the U.S. can insist that talks on reducing tensions are impossible while the North conducts nuclear tests and launches ballistic missiles. That's not the same as either asking North Korea up front to give up its arsenal, or accepting it as a nuclear state.

For new talks to succeed, the U.S. must also expend more energy getting South Korea and Japan, barely on speaking terms, to get along. The U.S. can keep the pressure on North Korea (and on China) by working with its two closest regional allies to strengthen their deterrent and missile defense capabilities. And there's plenty of room for tightening UN sanctions and laying the groundwork for new ones to be imposed if the North proceeds with more tests.

But first and foremost, let's use the diplomatic opening of Fowle's release to end the U.S. policy of "strategic patience" -- the Obama administration's code-word for doing nothing while North Korea becomes more dangerous. North Korea is playing a long game, and for keeps. Don't expect to win if you're not willing to do the same.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net