BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — In a few months a former U.S. president — Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton — may be asked to travel to North Korea in pursuit of military denuclearization. Or it will be new President Barack Obama.

In 1994, Carter did exactly that. Meeting personally with then-maximum North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in Pyongyang, the former U.S. president hammered out an understanding that was to lead to the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated in Geneva.

The lead U.S. negotiator in Geneva was ace diplomat Robert Gallucci, who is now the well-regarded dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. But that war-stopping agreement was achieved not only because the United States was so ably represented, but also because the basics of the accord had been clearly spelled out in that Kim-Carter meeting in North Korea’s capital.

The key to the overall accord was the top-down approach to diplomacy. This is virtually the only method for achieving negotiated agreements with a dictatorship like North Korea. Dealing with lower-level emissaries will inevitably be frustrating, because they inherently lack the authority and negotiating room.

At the current six-party talks in China, the U.S. lead negotiator has been Christopher Hill. Indefatigable, precise and thoroughly schooled in the art of diplomacy, Hill is as good a man for this sort of intellectual and diplomatic torture as you can get. Gallucci himself would be the first to praise Hill’s efforts. But Hill has had to operate, since 2005, under a handicap that Gallucci did not face: lack of a prior sign-off by the top dictator in North Korea on the basic shape and conclusions of a negotiated deal.

Instead of instructions either going to the North Korean delegation from the top down, the North Korean negotiators have had to take their winnings from the negotiating table in Beijing back to Pyongyang for approval from higher-ups. There have been three problems with this bottom-up approach.

The first is that even senior North Korean officials — much less mid-level ones — are afraid of exhibiting an independence or freedom of thought in even private negotiations. (They assume, properly, that every such conversation is bugged.) They are afraid of losing their lives: For in a feral dictatorship like North Korea’s, there is only one source of wisdom and political correctness, and that comes from the boss.

This leads to the second problem. The current boss of North Korea (as far as anyone knows) is Kim Jong Il, a son of the founder, who died within weeks after the impromptu 1994 summit with Carter. He is a very strange man, presiding over a very strange country. And, to make matters worse, the sixtysomething autocrat has been recovering from a severe medical setback, probably a stroke or strokes. North Korean state security has muffled the details, so no one is entirely certain of the leader’s exact condition.

Nonetheless, that illness may help explain the constant wavering of the North Korean delegation in Beijing. Just when Hill believes a tricky point has been nailed down, the North Koreans flee efforts at precision as if their life depended on it. And — as if dealing with this North Korean government was not difficult enough in itself — Hill has had to labor under a third difficulty. Until recently, Pyongyang had been officially a member of the Bush administration’s notorious list of governments that have supported terrorism. For better or for worse, back in 1994 when Carter went to Pyongyang, the Clinton administration offered the world no such informational listing service. Thus, for much of the past few years, career diplomat Hill has had to negotiate with a government that his own boss — U.S. President George W. Bush — in effect had been publicly saying no one should trust. This is not an ideal environment for progress-making diplomatic give and take.

Hill’s role in this political psychodrama is now over; the world awaits the Obama administration for action. So the question remains: Will the North Koreans ever truly abandon their nuclear-arms program? The answer is yes, but only if (1) the price in aid is high enough, and (2) some very high-level American travels to Pyongyang to nail down the framework of the deal with whoever is then the leader of North Korea.

The three most obvious possibilities for this mission are former U.S. Presidents Carter or Clinton, and President Obama. This is the only way the deal will ever get done. One of these three probably has to go.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is writing a major book on Asia. © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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