WASHINGTON — One legacy that U.S. President Bill Clinton will not rush to claim credit for is a surfeit of Asian candidates for the likely first foreign-policy crisis inherited by the new Bush administration — Taiwan, Indonesia and India and Pakistan among them. But certainly North Korea is near the top of the list.

Seven months after the North-South summit last June, the promise of a “new” North Korea primed for change appears ambiguous at best. So do the prospects for peace and Korean reconciliation in what remains of the world’s most potentially explosive flash points.

As underscored by minimal progress in recent North-South ministerial talks in Pyongyang, North-South relations appear to be settling into an uneasy pattern of what can be charitably termed “creeping reconciliation,” with the North playing many of its old games of raising complaints and demands designed to insure a lack of progress while trying to create the impression that the South is to blame. Similarly, the failed “bait and switch” gambit of North Korean paramount leader Kim Jong Il to lure Clinton to Pyongyang with a missile deal that looked more suspect the closer one got to the fine print leaves much uncertainty in U.S.-North Korean relations.

Pyongyang remains engaged just enough with Seoul to keep the process alive and gain some benefits at little cost. The North is clearly trying to slow the pace of the North-South process, cruelly refusing to increase separated family exchanges and making outrageous demands for 2 million kilowatts of free electricity. Curiously, this is precisely the amount of electricity that two nuclear reactors to be built under the U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework (which froze North Korea’s known nuclear-weapons program) are supposed to provide. The other major point of cooperation, central to inter-Korean economic cooperation, is in connecting the trans-Korea railway, and creating an industrial zone at Kaesong, just across the demilitarized zone.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for Kim Jong Il to show up in Seoul for a promised return-summit. He is reluctant to go south. The reluctance to reciprocate Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae Jung’s courageous trip North is emblematic of the reality that North-South “reconciliation” so far has been largely a one-way street. This is one reason why it would be unwise for Seoul to subsidize free electricity to the North unless Kim Jong Il is willing to trade its secret plutonium for electricity as the nuclear deal promises.

In any case, Pyongyang redirected its diplomatic priority toward Washington in hope of cashing in on Clinton’s lame-duck quest for a legacy. As the new administration will have to pick up the pieces, it is worth reviewing the aborted missile deal. When U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang in October, she and Kim Jong Il discussed a rollback of North Korean missiles to limits set by the Missile Technology Control Regime, including dismantling already-deployed Nodongs, which can reach Japan, Taepodong I, which has been tested and Taepodong 2, which is under development. But then Pyongyang shrunk the deal, offering only to ban exports, testing and development of Taepodongs without the verification necessary to make a deal credible. They wanted a Clinton visit at bargain-basement prices.

At bottom, the problem here is the same as that with North-South relations: The North has yet to make key decisions: Is it prepared to open and revive its moribund economy? Is it prepared to really trade its military threat for economic assistance and security assurances? Until Pyongyang comes to terms with these difficult choices, both Seoul and Washington will face a North Korea pursuing a “muddling through” policy of risk avoidance, unable to face the future.

The lesson of the first seven months of North-South detente and of seven years of Clinton-North Korean diplomacy seems clear: Kim Jong il is a clever tyrant who is skilled at using diplomacy to get all he can at little or no cost. Who can blame him? Few would make difficult choices if they could avoid them. Kim Dae Jung may be right that Pyongyang has little choice but to change. But what has been missing from both South Korean and U.S. policy is “tough love”: creating a situation where Pyongyang has to make painful choices to realize its own best interests.

In theory, President Kim Dae Jung’s engagement policy would do this by seeking reciprocity. Similarly, the policy former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry proposed in 1999 also asked the North to choose. But in practice, Seoul has not defined what reciprocity means. In fact, since he emerged from the shadows, the world has been treating Kim Jong Il like he is a global rock star. This has only reinforced his belief that the world will come to him and he does not need to take the risk of serious change.

Faced with these Korean realities, expect both change and continuity in the policy of new Bush administration. The goals of threat reduction, North-South reconciliation, and commitment to the U.S.-South Korean alliance will, if anything, be reinforced. But expect a serious rethinking of the patterns of diplomacy employed to realize these goals. Don’t be surprised if the “free lunch” diplomacy for North Korea is swiftly ended. The Bush administration is likely to be more interested in results than process and less eager to chase after Pyongyang.

Yet, if this is the “new” North Korea, if it makes the tough choices required, it is likely to find a more reliable partner in George W. Bush. A willingness to reduce the threat posed by missiles, chemical weapons, its still secret plutonium, and not least, conventional forces, may be met with a more generous response. But more game playing and efforts to get something for nothing may well be met with stony silence and reinforced deterrence. If it wants to sell its threats — with adequate verification — that is one thing. If it merely seeks to “rent” them, like the nuclear deal and proposed missile deal, that is quite another.

Similarly, Seoul can expect a greater emphasis on the U.S.-South Korean alliance, and perhaps a return to the principal of “parallel movement” in U.S.-North Korean ties and North-South ties that guided the previous Bush administration. In the end, however, it will be the choices made by North Korea that shape the next phase of South Korean and U.S. diplomacy. If the past is any guide, do not be surprised if Pyongyang tries to provoke a crisis — perhaps threatening to withdraw from the Agreed Framework — in an effort to test the new administration and put it on the defensive.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.