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Mistmatch: New Game Plan for US-DPRK Relations

North Korea and the United States are like two mismatched basketball teams playing the same game over and over again.

The short, scrappy Korean squad has been practicing all season for this single game, and they come out blazing. They run a bewildering offense and full-court press. The taller, bigger American team is befuddled, can't set up its plays, and seems to be always playing defense. The Koreans foul heavily, in part to make up for their disadvantage in height, but the Americans shoot poorly from the free-throw line. One particularly brutal foul leads the Americans' star player to hobble off the court, as the first quarter ends with the Koreans in the lead. The American coach is confused and outraged, and considers asking the ref to call off the game. The Korean fans are going wild.

In the second quarter, the Americans focus, get in their groove, and seem to have a breakthrough. The US team discovers that a half-court press works well. The Americans go up by the buzzer. Coach thinks he's got the game in the bag, and pulls his starters after the half.

Then in the third quarter, the Americans unwittingly lose the game. The North Koreans come back from the break rejuvenated, and play an aggressive full-court game. The Americans figure they can wait it out, and save their starters for the fourth quarter. But by then it's too late. The Koreans dominate most of the second half, with a tenacious, physical, full-court press. The Americans make one last push late in the fourth, but the Koreans are good at running down the clock and controlling the ball. Another upset. But for the Koreans, it's another Pyrrhic victory-league officials disqualify them from the playoffs due to excessively rough play.

We are now drifting in the wake of the third North Korean missile crisis, and first peninsular test of yet another US president new to foreign policy making. For all the talk about the DPRK's imminent collapse, they have a remarkably stable and seasoned group of foreign policy players. So President Obama might consider getting Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, George W. Bush, and Chris Hill on a conference call (might not hurt to patch in Kim Dae-jung, Junichiro Koizumi, and Hu Jintao). Piecing together their recollections on dealing with North Korea, Obama might start to see a pattern in US-DPRK relations: 1) North Korea gets American attention with actions-defiant, bellicose, destabilizing-that trigger a crisis, forcing the US to initially harden its stance, but eventually re-engage Pyongyang; 2) A formal diplomatic breakthrough is achieved, typically through direct contact at a high level with the North Koreans, resurrecting a general framework for resolution; 3) The "hard slog of diplomacy" proves too hard. The US loses steam in follow-through on existing agreements, if for understandable reasons: allies in the region and critics domestically label it appeasement; Pyongyang makes every step difficult; US foreign policy gravitates to higher priorities elsewhere. North Korea focuses intently on driving a hard bargain, being treated with dignity, and protecting their regime. Americans reiterate their commitment to dialogue, but subtly shift their focus to more pressing, or less frustrating, areas of the world. Another crisis is probably not far off.
By tracing how this sequence has replayed over the past 15 years, President Obama can learn some important lessons. In 1993-4, an American president still learning the ropes of world politics faced the first North Korean nuclear crisis. A quick synopsis goes something like this: the International Atomic Energy Agency was pressing Pyongyang to accept an inspections regime. South Korea's president Kim Young Sam was taking an increasingly hard line as North-South relations sputtered. The new American government leaned toward engaging the DPRK, but was not pressing its case, when North Korea abruptly threatened to withdraw from the Non-proliferation Treaty and move forward with its nuclear program. In the spring of 1994, as the US was seriously considering a military strike, former president Jimmy Carter traveled at his own initiative to Pyongyang, met face-to-face with Kim Il-sung, and brought both sides back from the brink. That fall in Geneva, the US and North Korea signed the October 21st "Agreed Framework," which promised North Korea comprehensive energy assistance-building two light-water reactors by 2003, and providing 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually in the interim-if the North gave up its nuclear program. The USA and DPRK agreed to "move toward normalization of political and economic relations" and "work together for peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula."
By Clinton's second term, the Agreed Framework was falling into desuetude. Washington was losing interest in the energy assistance program (called KEDO-Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization), and there were no light-water power plants in sight. Conservatives had Clinton's "weak" foreign policy in their crosshairs, with the Rumsfeld Commission on ballistic missiles singling out North Korea as "a major threat to American interests, and potentially to the United States itself." Washington's lukewarm commitment to the Agreed Framework, under fire domestically, set the stage for the first North Korean missile crisis, when the DPRK launched a dual-use satellite/ missile rocket on August 31st, 1998.
The launch was Clinton's second 3 a.m. wake-up call from the peninsula, and US officials made another push at engaging Pyongyang. Emboldened by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement, Clinton, in the twilight of his presidency, received the DPRK's top brass, General Jo Myong Rok, at the White House. Diplomatic breakthrough came in the form of the "US-DPRK Joint Communique" of October 12th, 2000. The Joint Communique reaffirmed the basic terms of the deal-energy aid, security assurance, and normalization in return for abandonment of the missile and nuclear programs, and commitment to non-proliferation. Clinton, tempted to go to North Korea himself, sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang. Albright met with Kim Jong-il at great length, found him well-briefed, decisive, and open to rapprochement.
Fast-forward to 2006, and the Joint Communique has joined the Agreed Framework in the dustbin of diplomatic history. George W. Bush came into office determined, in the words of his vice president, to destroy evil, not negotiate with it. In his 2002 State of the Union, following the 9-11 attacks, Bush defined "evil" in three words: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Kim Jong-il's recent charm offensive-historic summits with the heads of state of erstwhile enemies Japan and South Korea, and high profile visits to China and Russia to see the fruits of "reform and opening"-had not registered in a White House intent on "regime change" and "preemptive war." Washington's rebuffs, and Kim Jong-il's sense that he could be next after Saddam Hussein, set the stage for the second North Korean missile crisis-when the DPRK launched seven mid- and long-range missiles on July 4th, 2006-and the second nuclear crisis-when North Korea, having withdrawn from the Non-proliferation Treaty, tested a small-scale nuclear device underground on October 6th, 2006.
These tests were President Bush's 3 a.m. call from Pyongyang. Mired in unpopular military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush decided belatedly to give dialogue a chance on the Korean peninsula. The Americans started participating energetically in the Six Party Talks-officially begun at China's initiative in 2003. In 2005, the Talks had adopted essentially the same framework of aid, security and normalization in exchange for verifiable denuclearization. But it was only after the missile and nuclear tests that the US pushed to put that framework into practice, spelled out in the "Action Plan" agreed to on February 13th, 2007. The Action Plan specified reciprocal steps to be taken by all parties in phase one. During 2007 and most of 2008 the DPRK froze and began dismantlement of its nuclear program, until the process hit a snag on the issue of a written verification protocol. George W. Bush seemed to hope for a major breakthrough with North Korea before he left office. But by late last summer, both Washington and Pyongyang were gearing for a transition of power at the White House, with no clear indication of what approach the new president would bring to the peninsula.
The lessons in all this for President Obama as he steers a new course in US-North Korea relations? First, don't be too distracted by the provocative launch and antagonistic rhetoric emanating from Pyongyang. The next six months may be a good time to look for a new breakthrough. Given the deep freeze into which North-South Korean relations have fallen, this breakthrough seems likely to be in US-DPRK bilateral relations. This is unfortunate, since South Koreans should, and ultimately must, lead the process of reconciliation. But for now, the intransigence of Tokyo and hard line in Seoul cannot be allowed to compromise American efforts toward a lasting resolution of conflict with North Korea. "Alliance management" obliges the United States not to bow to our allies' opinions, but to do our utmost to convince them of the best way to move forward.
The second lesson of the pattern is that the breakthrough will not be the real breakthrough. The true breakthrough is in the follow-through. If President Obama and his team want to break the cycle that has stymied North Korean diplomacy for the last 15 years, the crucial factor will be Washington's ability to implement agreements. If the door does indeed reopen for improved US-DPRK relations, the Obama Administration should move resolutely to sign, seal and deliver on the American promise of aid, trade, security and normalization. A more cautious, piecemeal approach might seem warranted, given the difficulties in negotiating with North Korea. But, perversely, conservatism plays into their hand, as the process breaks down into the US and its allies bribing Pyongyang for each small step in denuclearization. A bold approach, seeking systemic transformation of North Korea's political economy and international disposition-while assuring those in power they are not the victims or targets of this change, but rather indirect beneficiaries-is the only way out. Engagement is sometimes tarred with the brush of being soft or naïve. In the unusual case of the Korean peninsula, finding a way to normalize North Korea's relations with the US and its neighbors is the really "tough" and "hardheaded" policy. It will not happen fast or painlessly, but it is the best long-term solution available.
To return to the basketball analogy: this is only the first quarter. Sure enough, the North Korean game plan is inscrutable, and, in a destructive sense, effective. It wouldn't be surprising if things turn around for the Americans, and they are up by half-time. The key fact to remember is that this game is won in the third quarter. That's when Obama and his team need to really run up the score.