There were hopes, a few years ago, that North Korea might just quietly implode, as the Soviet Union did, then be absorbed by its neighbor to the south. The hermetic state was on the brink of mass starvation, created by economic mismanagement and compounded by nature’s caprice. The government in Pyongyang was capable of causing trouble, as evidenced by its alleged nuclear weapons development program, but it was assumed that the mischief could be contained until the regime collapsed under its own weight. That was the unspoken assumption behind the Agreed Framework signed by the United States and North Korea and backed by South Korea and Japan.
Unfortunately, the North Korean government has shown far more resilience than had been expected. Hawkish posturing notwithstanding, no one these days seriously expects the regime to collapse. Instead, barring unforeseen circumstances, the Pyongyang government should muddle through, aided of course by generous dollops of international assistance. This has obliged the U.S. to find a new policy for dealing with North Korea, and last week, Mr. William Perry, the former U.S. secretary of defense tasked by U.S. President Bill Clinton to chart the new course, made public his recommendations. They reverse longstanding U.S. policy and call for coexistence with Pyongyang. It is an ambitious step, one that is sure to be bitterly contested by conservatives. But the existing framework for relations has failed; an alternative is needed. Success, however, depends on North Korea’s reaction. That is the great unknown.
Mr. Perry’s recommendations are the result of a 10-month review, which included a trip to North Korea and meetings with top officials there. (He did not meet the country’s leader, Mr. Kim Jong Il, however.) The new policy disavows any U.S. intent to hasten the end of the communist regime in Pyongyang and seeks peaceful coexistence. The new direction, it is hoped, will give the North Korean leadership a sense of security and make it more inclined to deal cooperatively with their neighbors.
In a step-by-step approach, the U.S. has pledged to further ease sanctions against North Korea and move toward the establishment of diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Progress depends on North Korea suspending its missile-development program and abiding by the 1994 Agreed Framework to freeze its nuclear program. The process has already begun. Last month, the Clinton administration announced that it was easing some of its sanctions in a move called “the most significant gesture” toward Pyongyang since the end of the Korean War.
Mr. Perry has no illusions. He said results would be a long time coming and there are no assurances of success. He expects a “mixed” reaction, but he takes heart from North Korea’s continuing adherence to the 1994 agreement and its recent pledge to freeze its missile-testing program.
The policy reassessment is overdue. The delay is not the fault of the U.S. alone; conservatives in South Korea, for example, have done their best to torpedo any signs of rapprochment between Washington and Pyongyang. Hostility may be gratifying to hardliners, but it has had no appreciable impact on North Korean behavior. The Cold War mind-set produced the nuclear-weapons and missile-development programs. Sanctions gave the government a ready excuse for its own economic failures. North Korea’s venomous rhetoric may not have changed since 1994, but it has made agreements with the U.S. and stuck with them.
Progress depends on Pyongyang. It says it wants a new relationship with the U.S.: It must now prove it. The missile-development program must be stopped. Talks with the U.S. should also prod Pyongyang to sit down with South Korea and Japan.
That is likely to be the chief sticking point as the new policy unfolds. Pyongyang’s chief interest is in establishing relations with the U.S. It has no desire to meet or deal with South Korea as an equal; its interest in Japan is strictly financial. The U.S. must work closely with its allies in Seoul and Tokyo to ensure that no wedges are driven between them, which is sure to be the North Korean objective. It will not be hard to coordinate. During his review, Mr. Perry consulted the two governments regularly and made sure that their views were taken into consideration. That process must continue.
Mr. Perry has done Mr. Clinton, the U.S. and Northeast Asia a great service. He deserves our thanks. Ultimately, the success of his effort depends on factors beyond his control. If North Korea is serious about wanting to forge a new relationship with the world, the option is now available. However, Pyongyang’s readiness to seize the moment remains as uncertain as ever.
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