The United States and North Korea have struck yet another deal. This time, the two parties seem to have negotiated a framework for the relaxation of U.S. economic sanctions against North Korea in exchange for the suspension of Pyongyang’s ballistic missile testing program. Some ask, why does the U.S. bother? It is a fair question, given North Korea’s image as a nation with no respect for international law, a country determined to provoke one crisis after another in pursuit of its own desperate objectives. Some argue that this deal, like the previous nuclear-framework agreement, will be discarded as soon as it no longer serves Pyongyang’s needs.
When dealing with North Korea, caution is in order — as it is in all diplomacy with potential adversaries. But the popular image of North Korea as a rogue nation is belied by the diplomatic record. North Korea’s government likes to resort to brinkmanship, yet history shows that it has honored its obligations. The key to success, then, is showing the North that it has more to gain from accepting international norms than from ignoring them.
Details are sparse, but the most recent deal obliges the U.S. to lift sanctions on exports and nonmilitary investment, end the freeze on assets held by North Koreans in the U.S., permit some financial transactions and allow U.S. commercial ships to enter North Korea. In exchange, North Korea will suspend its ballistic missile testing program. North Korean officials have said that the “suspension” will continue as long as there is progress in the relationship between the two countries.
It is hard to believe that the U.S. would give Pyongyang that much discretion over implementation of the agreement. It gives rise to the criticism that the problem has only been postponed, not solved. Yet, even if that is the case, there are ways to make it work in the West’s favor.
North Korea has the potential to cause real trouble. Ignoring that threat is unrealistic. A few years ago, many believed the regime was on its last legs. No more. No credible analyst thinks the Pyongyang government will not muddle through. Moreover, unremitting hostility has produced no tangible benefits. After all, that is the policy that produced a “rogue nation,” suspected of producing its own nuclear weapons and possessor of a robust missile development and export program.
Remarkably — and contrary to popular opinion — the opposite tack has paid dividends. Cooperation has put a halt to the North’s nuclear-weapons program. Although there have been “crises,” the North has never taken the one step that would terminate the negotiation process: It has threatened, but it has never reprocessed its plutonium.
It is easy to lose sight of that fact (and often-erroneous reporting has not helped). Most nations prefer to define themselves in positive terms, but North Korea’s unique history and psychology have created a singular mind-set. A century of abuse and abandonment has taught North Koreans that they can rely on no one but themselves. The leadership has learned that brinkmanship and guerrilla tactics pay dividends; if nothing else, they put the country on the international agenda.
For all the bluster, North Korea’s isolation is ending. What was once the slimmest briefing book in the diplomat’s library is slowly filling out. Tactics that kept negotiators off balance no longer surprise. More important, North Korea has won a stake in the status quo. It can no longer afford to turn its back on the world; it would lose the benefits — the fuel oil, the new nuclear plants — that it has been promised.
Lifting the economic embargo and opening the door to U.S. business may sound as if the U.S. is going too far, but the Pyongyang regime is unlikely to profit. There are many reasons why Western companies are reluctant to do business in North Korea; the embargo only gives the government an excuse for its own failings. The sooner it is obliged to face the truth, the better.
If North Korea is the irrational state that its detractors like to call it, then negotiations are pointless. But there is no proof that it is. The government in Pyongyang is difficult, but that is because it is scrupulously safeguarding the few assets it has. North Korea cannot afford to be generous. But then, it does not have to be. Nor does the rest of the world. There must be no illusions about getting something for nothing. A carefully negotiated framework of reciprocal concessions could yield benefits for all concerned. Reciprocity works both ways, however: If cooperation produces agreements, hostility will only generate more hostility in return.
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