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William Hartung

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Time to Reach Out to North Korea

Posted: 12/21/11 04:50 PM ET

In the proliferation of punditry that has accompanied the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, much has been said about the prospects for a chaotic transition, and even about the need to prepare for military action in case his son, Kim Jong Un, engages in saber-rattling (or worse) to "prove" himself to Pyongyang's military leadership.

It's too early to tell how smooth North Korea's change in leadership will be, but if past history is any guide, U.S. policy would be best served by preparing for a new round of diplomacy, not a new round of hostilities. Prior to his death, Kim Jong Il had offered to stop uranium enrichment in exchange for food aid, and to observe a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests during renewed talks on its nuclear program. As Leon V. Sigal has noted in a piece for the National Interest, "The prudent course would be to resume negotiations soon and test whether Kim Jong-un is ready to follow his father's lead and suspend his nuclear and missile programs."

This isn't the first time the United States has faced this predicament. When Kim Jong Il's father Kim Il Sung died in 1994, he and the U.S. were in the midst of negotiating the 1994 Agreed Framework. Negotiationsresumed within a month of Kim Il Sung's death, and the resulting deal delayed North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs for years until the Bush administration cut off negotiations early in its first term. The abandonment of the talks was driven by neo-conservatives in Bush's inner circle, in opposition to Secretary of State Colin Powell's argument that they should be continued. The result of this alleged "get tough" policy was an acceleration of Pyongyang's nuclear efforts that led to its production of eight bombs worth of nuclear materials. As Graham Allison of Harvard noted in an interview with the New York Times, "When the history of this era is written, the scorecard will be Kim 8, Bush 0."

Picking up where nuclear talks left off may be the best way to promote stability on the Korean peninsula in this time of transition. There is no guarantee that it will work, but it is by far the best option available.