[Update 2, 5/18: On the other hand, the “Kim Jong Hill” plan looks great next to the Richard Lugar plan, which is nothing more than a shiny new formula for buying lies with bribes. Lugar is a very nice person to meet and has his heart in the right place, but diplomatically, this is not the thing to be proposing when our financial crackdown and our political offensive are both showing some promising signs of success. When dealing with gangsters, it’s important to heed the lesson of Sollozo: never show division to an enemy.]
[Update: “Kim Jong Hill?” Not a good sign; scroll down.]
A pessimistic prediction about diplomacy with North Korea never waits long for vindication, and I’m not about to take my chips away from the table over this New York Times story:
President Bush’s top advisers have recommended a broad new approach to dealing with North Korea that would include beginning negotiations on a peace treaty, even while efforts to dismantle the country’s nuclear program are still under way, senior administration officials and Asian diplomats say.
Aides say Mr. Bush is very likely to approve the new approach, which has been hotly debated among different factions within the administration. But he will not do so unless North Korea returns to multinational negotiations over its nuclear program. The talks have been stalled since September.
Bush’s stated aim for a long time had been the establishment of diplomatic relations with North Korea, after the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of Kim Jong Il’s nuke programs. Because diplomatic relations and war are presumably inconsistent, one presumes that a peace agreement to end the Korean War would be a part of that process at some point. All that’s really new here is the relative timing of things. Via Tony Snow, there won’t be any down payments. Uh huh.
Ways to View This, Part 1
One view is to conclude nothing, because we really have no idea how much these people are willing to give away. Appearances at think tanks and carefully crafted comments to the press will tell us more in the coming days.
Ways to View This, Part 2
My instinctive reaction was that this the latest retreat by a hopelessly divided and indecisive Administration that has steadily given ground to an intransigent North Korea. The retreats have been punctuated by words and occasional actions meant to create the appearance of decisiveness, but this report seals the continuity of those retreats fairly seamlessly since the Clinton Administration. Whereas our former position had been to work toward diplomatic recognition “eventually,” with non-specific discussions about human rights being a “soft” precondition, there’s really no saying if and how the issue would ever have been a part of the U.S. agenda. I personally believe that the State Department establishment has never met an agreement it didn’t like and is desperate to have this one before we enter the next presidential election cycle. That simple explanation is probably the most likely, and David Sanger’s NYT story notes that this is indeed the doing of Condi Rice and Philip Zelikow. Sanger, by the way, seems to have good connections in the White House. His information is generally accurate.
Plus, it’s hard to see what four-party talks will do that six-party talks couldn’t. The one nation that had been negotiating like a U.S. ally was Japan, which won’t be part of this round. The United States will find itself surrounded by three enemies.
Ways to View This, Part 3
Another possibility is that the Administration sees little hope for a deal, wants to continue squeezing the North, doesn’t want to be seen as the diplomatic bad guy, and is engaging in some very subtle diplomatic theater. Today’s rumors of a North Korean missile test bolster that theory somewhat, as does the proximity to a South Korean election. Next, consider the issues that will be front-loaded here:
[I]t is far from clear that North Korea would engage in any new discussions, especially if they included talk of political change, human rights, terrorism and an opening of the country, topics that the Bush administration has insisted would have to be part of any comprehensive discussions with North Korea.
At least under this proposal, human rights issues and the more fundamental question of North Korea’s fundamental receptivity to transparency aren’t deferred indefinitely. If the U.S. avails itself of the opportunity, it could speak openly about concentration camps, famine, food aid, and freedom even as it plays the role of peacemaker and explores North Korea’s readiness to let us explore suspicious facilities. Engaging in a public debate over those issues is a win, even (and especially) if the North Koreans refuse. Japan will see an opportunity to add abductions to that agenda, and rightfully so. Other nations are more of a question mark. China will probably issue a cautiously positive statement, but China and South Korea might not want to end up in the position of opposing human rights, transparency, food aid, or (in South Korea’s case) a final peace treaty. With those terms also under discussion, of course, it’s more likely that both the United States and North Korea will see how irreconcilable their views are.
Not a bad place to be, if we play our cards right.
Why this will probably never happen:
The U.S. side says a prerequisite to the deal is North Korea rejoining the six-party talks. The North Koreans say they won’t rejoin the talks until the U.S. stops its crackdown on their counterfeiting and money-laundering. The U.S. side continues to say that these law enforcement measures will continue (at least “until we have the plates”). The crackdown has caused the North Koreans pain, but South Korea and China will probably supply enough cash to persaude Kim Jong Il that he can ride the Bush Administration out. That will disabuse him of any motive to compromise.
Finally, the North Koreans may be good hagglers and bargainers, but they suck as diplomats. Good diplomats recognize opportunities to deceive others to their own advantage; they know a good thing when they see it. Case in point: Kim Dae-Jung’s election-eve ride on Peace Train. Why are the North Koreans too stupid to help their boy Roh out by strumming along for just a few weeks? Another case in point: their brutish handling of the recent inter-Korean military talks.
Look — the North Koreans will never have a South Korean government that would do more to accomodate them than this one. We know they take a keen interest in South Korean elections, and that they’re not exactly endorsing the GNP. So why are they doing so much to help the GNP? Ditto their Southern puppets. Do they really think threats and violence will win friends and influence people? Why not simply tell the kids to put down the sticks for a while until the election is over? Why not give Roh his photo op with Kimigula? Why not pretend, just for a few weeks, that the ballistic sword of Damocles will be lifted from Seoul’s head? Why not at least stop pushing Tokdo off Page One?
I can only think of one sensible answer: they’re too fucking stupid.
That’s pretty scary when you consider some of the things they have in their arsenals.
Finally, consider the North’s political system. Do the North Koreans really want to open themselves up to the world, so that their people can see how great people have it everywhere else? No, and they need external enemies to justify the isolation and control that keeps them in power. They need hostility with the United States, and all the concessions we could ever give won’t change that fact.
Reasons why it’s remotely possible that this could happen:
The big question about America’s financial squeezing of North Korea is, “To what end?” Either this is Victor Cha’s hawk engagement approach — negotiation from strength — or someone finally realized that there’s no dealing with these people and that we need to run them out of business entirely. Feel free to drop a comment if you have some inside knowledge. What follows presumes the first of these possibilities, which on balance is also the more likely.
There are ways the United States could force the South Koreans and the Chinese to stop propping up Kim Jong Il. A drastic downsizing of the alliance would bring South Korea in line and have the added benefit of being in the best interest of the United States. In China’s case, keep your eye on this possibility, which may or may not be sufficient. Austin Bay falls back on a popular, pollyannish view of China being ready to cut North Korea off once it decides that North Korea is bad for business (which it has been for a very long time). I think Kissinger is more correct here, despite his generally superficial understanding of the North Koreans’ thinking:
The expectation that China is so reluctant to see nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula — and therefore ultimately in Japan — that it will sooner or later bring the needed pressure on North Korea has so far been disappointed. This is because China has not only military concerns but also strategic objectives on the Korean Peninsula. It will try to avoid an outcome in Korea that leads to the sudden collapse of an ally, producing a flood of Korean refugees into China as well as turmoil on its borders.
Not to mention dividing U.S. forces that could be called on to aid Taiwan. If China and South Korea did cut North Korea off, however, the North Koreans could become desperate for a deal. So what do they really have to lose? They’ve signed deals before, after all (with South Korea seemingly never putting ink to the paper). They may well gamble — and probably correctly — that the next American administration would go easier on them. Then, they could go right back to being dishonest and defiant, with everyone but a few pesky Republican congressmen and powerless bloggers being willing to pretend that all is well.
Until it undeniably isn’t.
The announcement, naturally, bought cries of jubilation in Seoul. Right? Not exactly.
SEOUL, South Korea_Negotiations on a peace treaty to formally end the state of war on the Korean Peninsula are likely only after substantial progress is made on ending North Korea’s nuclear program, a senior South Korean official said Thursday.
Shockingly, the South Koreans aren’t even all singing from the same page:
However, the head of South Korea’s task force on the nuclear standoff, said there was “absolutely nothing” new in the report.
“The headline was big but the content was not,” said the foreign ministry task force chief Lee Young-Joon.
“The main theme of the New York Times piece is that the Bush administration is planning to include peace treaty negotiations in talks with North Korea. But that is already the case. Everybody knows.”
. . . .
“Peace treaty negotiations are just one part of a series of implementation points. In order to start implementing the agreements we must first have a new round of six party talks.”
I officially have no idea what the fuck is going on here, so here are some lines of speculation instead.
1. Panic! I had thought inwardly for some time that there would be secret talks between Washington and Pyongyang after the supernotes/Banco Delta measures started to bite. I have absolutely no proof of this; it’s purely my speculation. But if the South Koreans suspect the same, they may smell a deal by which the United States would withdraw from South Korea in exchange for North Korean CVID. China certainly wouldn’t object, we could bring Japan along, Russia wouldn’t mind (as if it matters), leaving South Korea with its dick hanging in the cold North wind. I’d be fine with all of the aforementioned, except for the Faustian abandonment it would mean for the North Korean people for us to include any “security guarantees” for that regime.
2. Caution. South Korea is tamping down any speculation or expectations that could destabilize already negative public opinion trends less than two weeks before an election. They still don’t know the details, which goes far to explain why Chris Hill is on the way to talk to them out of Dick Cheney’s earshot. I’d expect some of the dumb things South Korean politicians have been saying recently will also come up, plus South Korea’s best efforts to remove all motives for North Korea to compromise or respect the sovereignty of other nations:
[M]any top officials have all but given up hope that North Korea’s government will either disarm or collapse during Mr. Bush’s remaining time in office. Increasingly, they blame two of Mr. Bush’s negotiating partners, South Korea and China, which have poured aid into North Korea even while the United States has tried to cut off its major sources of revenue.
3. Because it’s true (which is irrelevant). There’s one of you born every minute.
4. It’s Never Enough. The South Koreans won’t be happy until we give Kim Jong Il the Aleutian Islands.
5. Pride. The South Koreans are miffed that Washington didn’t consult them and is (!) making its own independent policy. See also “Panic,” supra no. 1.
6. Outflanked. This could put a serious kink into the Uri strategy of trying to appear more peace-loving and accomodating than Washington, so Seoul has to minimize the importance of this initiative.
Update 5/18: Well, this doesn’t look good:
Bush administration officials say Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, a leading advocate of conducting peace talks with North Korea, has gone overboard in taking a conciliatory line on the regime in Pyongyang, as part of an effort to coax the communist regime back to the now-stalled six-part talks on its nuclear program.
One senior administration official said Mr. Hill’s pro-North Korea bent has bordered on appeasement. Insiders say they privately are calling the diplomat in charge of the State Department’s Asia policy “Kim Jong-Hill,” after North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il.
Mr. Hill has sought to block or slow President Bush’s tougher posture toward North Korea that includes placing more restrictions on Pyongyang for its illegal activities, including currency counterfeiting, illegal drug trafficking and other sub rosa activities.
Well, I don’t know much about Hill’s inner thoughts. His previous statements hadn’t caused me many concerns, but his signing of a crappy deal last September certainly concerned me. One problem here is a subtle conflict between national and personal interests. The principal in a negotiation that ends with an agreement is defined as a “success;” walking away from a bad deal isn’t. Everyone remembers Kissinger for his Nobel Peace Prize, but everyone seems to forget that his deal left half of the North Vietnamese Army in South Vietnam, which led to predictable results, and other results that surpassed our predictions. A “successful” deal can mean that a diplomat is set for life: promotions, fame, media adulation, lucrative consulting work, and even book deals. That doesn’t necessarily mean that lives were saved, as Professor Rudy Rummel has documented in meticulous detail. Or, as P.J. O’Rourke put it, “peace kills.”
This phenomenon, not an innate opposition to diplomacy in general, is what worries me about this latest whipsawing of the U.S. strategy (the latter word being a very charitable description, unless I’m somehow misunderestimating something here).
That said, I’ve already noted that this proposal contains opportunities for human rights advocates. If the right person becomes America’s principal negotiator for this second track of U.S. diplomacy, that person will suddenly have a superb pulpit for discussing a whole list of things that should be preconditions to normal relations with North Korea:
– International inspection of concentration camps, prisons, detention facilities, and places where the regime has been accused of gassing kids.
– The acceptance of sufficient amounts of food aid in accordance with accepted international standards for monitoring.
– An orderly process by which people who suffer political persecution in North Korea can leave the country.
– Transparent inspection of locations where we believe drugs, supernotes, and counterfeit goods are produced or trafficked.
On the arms control track, there will also have to be a comprehensive approach that deals not just with the nuclear program, but chem and bio, plus missiles, plus all of the artillery pointed at South Korea. It means a repositioning of forces on both sides, away from the DMZ, and a reduction of North Korea’s gargantuan military, which millions have died to sustain. The most important foci must be transparency and verification.
We can speak forcefully about these things in the course of a two-track negotiation; all that is lacking is the right speaker and the authority to say what must be said. North Korea’s refusal to discuss any of these things should be publicly declared to be an impassible obstacle to agreement, though not to further talks. That way, in the likely event that talks reach no agreement, we will still have advanced America’s political goals and given the people of North Korea hope for a better future.