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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek editorial

OCTOBER 8, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 40

Dealing with Pyongyang
It is frustrating, but better than letting the country plot in seclusion


Will the world witness the arresting scene of U.S. President Bill Clinton landing on the tarmac at Pyongyang, his hand extended for a friendly handshake with his North Korean greeter? Will there be a private conclave with the reclusive Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il? Not likely. Yet the president's recent decision to lift virtually all economic sanctions levied on North Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, had something Nixonian about it. It is historic because it reverses the policy of the past 50 years of trying to isolate and demonize the North Korean regime. It is courageous because, unlike Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972, there are no votes in it. North Korea has no friends in Congress. Indeed, many of Clinton's Republican critics will be happy to say that he has submitted to "blackmail" and make it an issue in the 2000 presidential election.

The president's actions were quite comprehensive. He suspended application of the Trading with the Enemies Act, which had prohibited all forms of commerce with North Korea. Virtually every restriction on trade and investment except for sensitive commodities and weapons has been removed. It means that U.S. firms can, if they are inclined to do so, invest in North Korea; American aircraft and ships can visit. In return, Pyongyang declared a moratorium on test-firing advanced missiles. Further negotiations may lead to a complete suspension of missile development and exports of less advanced weapons to countries like Syria and Iraq from which Pyongyang obtains hard currency. The reward would be counselor level offices and ultimately full diplomatic recognition.

One might describe North Korea's missile diplomacy and its earlier program to build nuclear weapons as blackmail, as some of Clinton's critics have indeed said. One could also say that North Korea was simply but skillfully exploiting the only cards it held. Since North Korea is much smaller and poorer than China was when it first reached out to the U.S., one of the few ways for Pyongyang to get Washington's attention was to rattle missiles and threaten to build weapons of mass destruction. The tactic worked with nukes in 1994; missiles seemed an effective bargaining chip as well. It was a matter Washington could not easily ignore, given the danger posed to its allies and itself. The new missile reportedly had the range to hit parts of the U.S.

From Pyongyang's point of view, this strategy has a certain logic. As the decade opened. North Korea had found itself alone and isolated, while its rival, South Korea, was establishing diplomatic relations with its erstwhile allies, China and Russia. The only way out was to openly challenge the U.S. First it was with nuclear weapons. When that crisis came to a head in 1994, it put Washington in an awkward position. South Korea did not want the U.S. to hold direct talks with this rival to the north, yet Clinton could not just leave it to Seoul alone to handle nuclear weapons. Thus, Pyongyang succeeded in cracking the U.S.-South Korea policy by holding direct talks with Washington. The negotiation in Geneva led directly to the famous agreement to build two civilian nuclear power plants if Pyongyang suspended its own nuclear program.

But North Korea got nothing more from the Agreed Framework, as the Geneva Agreement was called, than the two atomic reactors now being built. Never fulfilled was the provision for setting up of unofficial relations and at least a partial lifting of the economic embargo. Enter Phase 2 of North Korea's strategy: missiles. It was exporting shorter-range rockets for hard currency. Washington tried to stop this but failed. In 1994 North Korea's leaders decided to develop longer-range missiles. That got Washington's attention, if for no other reason than it severely upset America's main Asian ally, Japan (over whose territory the first one was dispatched). And it exposed U.S. soil to potential attack.

Given the situation, Washington had two choices. It could attack and destroy North Korea's missile sites and development facilities, as it almost did in 1994 to Pyongyang's nuclear laboratories. Or, it could bring North Korea to the negotiating table, which is what Clinton's special adviser, former defense secretary William Perry, ultimately recommended following nearly a year of regional consultations. Many hope the current moratorium on testing will lead to an end to missile exports as well as the normalization of relations. That will make it easier for Pyongyang to establish diplomatic relations with Japan, which has given general approval to the U.S. move. Seoul too has acquiesced in its neighbor's bid to improve ties with Western countries first.

North Korea is a notoriously difficult negotiating partner, and the motives of its leaders are often inscrutable. So the new policy brings considerable risks. Pyongyang will probably drag the negotiations out as long as possible trying to get as much as it can from the West while surrendering little. But the main question is what would be the alternative? A few years back, there was much talk that North Korea would collapse anyway, so why worry about it? One hears a lot less of that kind of talk nowadays, especially as the famine is now easing. The current regime will be around for a long time. So somehow it must be encouraged to do what it seems to want to do (albeit on its own terms) - open itself to the world.


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