With U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gearing up to visit North Korea, it is a good time to take a deep breath and assess where this political roller coaster is headed. We have barely digested the last photo opportunity: the remarkable image of North Korea’s top general, Vice Marshal Cho Myong Rok, in the White House, in full military regalia, chatting with President Bill Clinton. Albright clinking glasses with Kim Jong Il may top even that. But it is time to determine where the symbols stop and the substance begins.

Cho’s visit was rich in imagery, but short on concrete achievement. It would be unfair to dismiss the importance of these visits — at last, after nearly eight years of talking to mid-level North Koreans, the Clinton administration is finally talking to the few at the top who matter in Pyongyang. And there have already been small, but concrete results: North Korea pledged last week to continue its moratorium on missile tests and to redouble its commitment to the Agreed Framework.

However, the joint communique issued at the end of Cho’s visit is an odd document, which can be read in different ways. On one level, it is a statement of grand intent. It proclaims that both sides “have decided to take steps to fundamentally improve their bilateral relations,” that “neither government would have hostile intent toward the other” and that both sides are committed “to building a new relationship free from past enmity.” Who can argue with such goals?

But as with the pre-World War II Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war, simply declaring peace does not make it so. In the real world, there are still 12,000 artillery tubes pointed toward Seoul, chemical weapons, Scud missiles and 600,000 troops, all within 100 km of the demilitarized zone. Not to mention Rodong and Taepodong missiles and unaccounted-for plutonium. Is it a good idea to move toward replacing the armistice with “new peace arrangements” if there is no parallel movement to reduce the military threat?

Against that backdrop, the communique may also be read as a list of pious platitudes. For example, it contains this profundity: “There are a variety of means to reduce tension . . . (and) new opportunities to improve the full range of relations (and to) develop mutually beneficial economic cooperation.”

Of course, improving U.S.-North Korean relations is a positive step. But don’t expect normalization anytime soon. It took nearly eight difficult years after President Richard Nixon’s visit to China to normalize U.S.-Chinese relations. And whether the issue is weapons proliferation, terrorism, human rights, trade access or national security, U.S. concerns about North Korea guarantee a long, hard road ahead under the best of circumstances. Albright’s upcoming visit may see minor progress made on removing North Korea from the U.S. terrorist list and/or opening liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang (this was negotiated four years ago, but the North backed away).

The United States is right to pursue its dialogue with Pyongyang. But there is a danger that the new U.S. diplomacy toward North Korea may resemble the old: chasing after Pyongyang, trying to have a meeting for the sake of process. Why Pyongyang chose now to respond to former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry’s initiative of 16 months ago remains a mystery. Perhaps it dawned on Kim that Clinton will be history in three months, and his successor may be less generous and more demanding.

There are serious issues outstanding, most prominently North Korea’s missile deployments, development and exports, and the need to reduce tension — indeed, to begin a process of major conventional-force reductions — on the Korean Peninsula to give reality to the noble intention of ending confrontation and enmity.

The new momentum in U.S.-North Korean relations underscores the need to closely coordinate U.S. moves with the North-South reconciliation process. Any hint that Pyongyang is returning to its old game of trying to play one off against the other should give Washington pause. Moreover, well-placed sources say that the trilateral-coordination process leaves much to be desired at present. It must not be reduced to Washington and/or Seoul merely consulting about what it has decided to do and getting a rubber stamp from the other two partners. Given the pace and complexity of the new diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula, it is increasingly important that the U.S.-South Korea-Japan process feature common strategy and tactics.

If a legacy-seeking Clinton goes to Pyongyang without serious prospects of a major breakthrough, it would be a dumbing down of U.S. diplomacy, reducing it (and Clinton’s legacy) to a final photo op, the permanent campaign that the administration is known for — an ironic fate for the man who campaigned in 1992 against “coddling dictators.”

Ernest Hemingway once said that one should never confuse action with movement. That may be a good lens through which to view the new U.S.-North Korean diplomacy that will unfold in the coming weeks.

Clearly, Pyongyang has made some decisions to improve ties to Washington. But in the end, there are two fundamental issues that will determine the feasibility of both U.S. relations with North Korea and North-South reconciliation. First, Pyongyang must decide whether the risk of opening and reforming its economy is less than the risk of gradual decline. It has been tinkering on the margins of reform for nearly a decade, but so incrementally that little change has occurred. Second, it must be willing to trade reducing its military threats for economic help and security assurances. It remains to be seen if the North is prepared to pay a price for real progress on both fronts or is just pursuing more sophisticated tactics: trying to get benefits at low cost by agreeing to meetings.

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