Can North Korea have both Kaesong and Yongbyon?

Who is the real Park Geun Hye? The uneasy coexistence of two headlines may soon tell us. The first headline tells us that, six months after North Korea withdrew its workers, the Kaesong Industrial Park will soon restart.  The second tells us that North Korea’s reactor at Yongbyon already has. Both of these developments are bad news for those who want to see North Korea disarmed, for reasons I explained here. But if Park is really as tough as some of us wanted to believe she was, she’ll at least make Kim Jong Un choose one.

To some, Park’s tactical success at negotiating the reopening of Kaesong revealed a predisposition to a more conditional variation of Sunshine. To others, it showed that Park was a completely different kind of leader than her predecessors–one who was not only willing to let Kaesong die rather than yield on principle, but perhaps even secretly hopeful that it would die, for reasons not easily attributed to her. As one who previously held the latter view, with declining confidence, over the last few months, I grasped at her insistence that the North “guarantee” that it wouldn’t shut Kaesong down again. Perhaps these guarantees were really poison pills. Perhaps they disguised demands for apologies or compensation–things that North Korea couldn’t possibly accept. But it doesn’t look that way now.

Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation said it best in a conversation over dinner a few weeks ago, when he called Trustpolitik “a Rorschach test.”

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In early April, just before North Korea was hit by a wave of financial pressure, Kim Jong Un made what turns out to have been a grave miscalculation by withdrawing 53,000 workers from Kaesong.  Kaesong was a source of $80 million a year in hard currency, but in early April, Kim Jong Un calculated that Park Geun Hye would be as easy as her predecessors to manipulate, that the disruption would be brief, and that he had enough cash reserves to weather it.  He would not have withdrawn the North Korean workers from Kaesong had he known what would happen in the following weeks.

The Kaesong affair has taught us all–but Kim Jong Un most of all–that Park Geun Hye’s tactical sophistication is a dimension beyond her predecessors. For years, I’ve watched North Korea lead the likes of Roh and D.J. with nose rings forged from their own beneficent hallucinations.  I’ve watched them stampede every American president to hold office since 1993 with thunderclaps of scary headlines.  President Obama is the only one of them who hasn’t paid Pyongyang off yet, but it’s still hard to see what his policy vision is, or that he even has one.

Park Geun-Hye is not like these others.  Park–who was poised and statesmanlike at an age when most of us were experimenting with facial hair, whose North Korea messaging has been maddeningly consistent for a decade, who coolly questioned her staff as they rushed her to the hospital with a slashed throat–has an actual, calculated policy vision for North Korea.  I’m not sure exactly what that vision is, but I doubt that it’s quite the same as the advertised vision.  I saw hints of it when I was fortunate enough to be in the Capitol for her speech to a joint meeting of Congress.

I’m at the upper center-right of the audience in the beginning of the video (appropriately enough). Recognize me? No? Neither do I. Here’s what I keyed in on:

But as we say in Korea, it takes two hands to clap. Trust is not something that can be imposed on another.

The pattern is all too familiar — and badly misguided. North Korea provokes a crisis. The international community imposes a certain period of sanctions. Later, it tries to patch things up by offering concessions and rewards. Meanwhile, Pyongyang uses that time to advance its nuclear capabilities. And uncertainty prevails.

It is time to put an end to this vicious cycle.

Pyongyang is pursuing two goals at once, a nuclear arsenal and economic development. We know these are incompatible.You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.

The leadership in Pyongyang must make no mistake. Security does not come from nuclear weapons. Security comes when the lives of its people are improved. It comes when people are free to pursue their happiness.

North Korea must make the right choice. It must walk the path to becoming a responsible member in the community of nations.

In order to induce North Korea to make that choice, the international community must speak with one voice. Its message must be clear and consistent.

Is Park now letting that cycle re-play itself? Her tactical achievement in negotiations over Kaesong now threatens to become a strategic setback, both for Park and for her American allies, who expended substantial diplomatic capital securing the passage of U.N. Security Council 2094.

What financial transparency ensures us that Kaesong and Yongbyon aren’t really just two reactors in different stages of North Korea’s nuclear cycle? No one knows that answer. And if Park doesn’t know, she’s violating that Security Council resolution we’ve just fought to secure, and are trying to get other nations to enforce. That would be a major diplomatic victory for North Korea. And weakening the enforcement of Security Council resolutions shortly after their passage is part of North Korea’s playbook.