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Is North Korea really ready to take the plunge toward better relations with the United States and Japan, or is it a case of deja vu all over again, to quote the immortal New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra? Is the Berlin breakthrough agreeing “in principle” to a high-level North Korean visit to Washington something to celebrate or be cautious about? In short, what are better relations likely to bring in terms of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and North-South dialogue? Can a rogue state and the world’s only superpower, an isolated Stalinist state and a vibrant, transparently democratic market economy, ever be expected to have meaningful relations?

The prospective dispatch of Kang Suk Ju to Washington cannot be expected to provide immediate answers to these questions. After all, it took years for Washington and Beijing to become civil with each other, and even today relations are strained.

For Pyongyang, it is probably more of a numbers game. With its eye ever on Seoul, evening the score is what counts. While the latter has relations with all four parties to the Korean drama, establishing relations with Washington and Tokyo will at least provide quantitative, if not qualitative parity. More significantly, Washington has never been Pyongyang’s chief protagonist; Seoul has. If it can somehow diminish or neutralize the Washington-Seoul connection, it stands to improve the current situation.

In part, of course, this is wishful thinking, though that never prevented Pyongyang from trying. It overlooks the fact that the U.S. has stood all along for democracy — not dictatorship — on the Korean Peninsula. After mistakenly embracing Syngman Rhee in the prewar period, and suffering the consequences, it stood its ground against authoritarian military rule for almost three decades. The North’s brand of political authoritarianism is equally repugnant.

Washington’s expectations may also be skewed toward the overly optimistic. Even if formal diplomatic relations are established, Pyongyang will not become a pussy cat overnight. Above all, in this period of transition, we need to differentiate those factors required to end military confrontation and the development of weapons of mass destruction from those conducive to building a new political and economic relationship. Defusing a danger is different from getting the North to change its fundamental political objective of peninsular hegemony or to undertake meaningful economic reforms. Curbing a missile threat and the resumption of a fissile reprocessing program are inherently different from charting a new political course.

Moreover, removing either or both of these threats does not fundamentally change the situation between the two Koreas at the core of the Korean conundrum. In giving up missiles for the moment and nuclear reprocessing for the longer term, Pyongyang is not abandoning its faith in a communist future or the desire to impose that future on the South. The possibility that the North can be induced to “coexist” with the South remains to be proved. North-South dialogue is still a long way off, a victim of the increasing disparity in economic and political muscle that the South wields on the peninsula. It is also at odds with the North’s goal of domination, not development, and its strategy of coercion and brinkmanship, not coexistence and cooperation.

Arguably, all Pyongyang is doing is laying down one set of policy instruments ill-suited for the normalization of relations with the U.S. — preferably at Seoul’s expense — without altering its long-term political goals.

Where U.S.-North relations, once normalized, can make a difference is in terms of Pyongyang’s perceptions of its own strategy. In the North’s world view, the South Korean government is merely a puppet of the U.S. without an independent voice of its own. Thus, it makes sense to negotiate directly with the U.S., as well as directly with South Korean political parties and social organizations independent of the South Korean government. When Pyongyang finally realizes that the South Korean government really does enjoy the solid support of the South Korean people — although currently repelled by the corruption and banality of interparty politics — strategic course correction in the direction of North-South dialogue and cooperation will become inevitable.

Diplomatically, with the establishment of a trilateral strategy under the rubric of a trilateral cooperation and oversight group composed of the U.S., Japan and South Korea, North Korea faces a united front — a big change from Agreed Framework negotiations that revealed deep fissures in the U.S. and South Korean positions. Driving a wedge between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul today would be a Herculean task. During his visit to Pyongyang last spring, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry spoke for a converging triumvirate of interests. In pressing normalization on two fronts in the weeks and months ahead, Pyongyang will find Washington and Tokyo in lock step over the conditions for removing economic sanctions and admitting Pyongyang to membership in the international community.

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