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Seven Steps to Take in Dealing with North Korea

Two North Korean diplomats flew to Santa Fe, New Mexico to meet with Gov. Bill Richardson--who as UN Ambassador negotiated with Pyongyang under President Bill Clinton. Although supposedly visiting to discuss energy issues (Gov. Richardson also served as one of President Clinton's energy secretaries), the North Koreans proclaimed their desire for talks with the U.S. "They feel, the North Koreans, that by giving us the two American journalists, that they've made an important gesture," explained Gov. Richardson.

Apparently the North Koreans know how to spell chutzpah.

The government of Kim Jong-il is owed nothing. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a relic of the Cold War, a Stalinist remnant in which some 23 million people suffer and even starve. Since 1948 only two men have held supreme power in the DPRK: "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung and his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il. The impoverished and backward nation would matter little but for its nuclear weapons program. With the latter, however, Pyongyang can command international attention.

How to respond is a recurring problem for American diplomacy. There are seven steps that the U.S. government should take in promoting peace and stability on the peninsula.

• Keep expectations low. More than once have sober-minded analysts and policy-makers proclaimed the latest "breakthrough." North Korea is one the world's few totalitarian left-overs. It thrives on isolation, fears Western freedoms, and relies on brinkmanship as a negotiating technique. Diplomatic progress is possible, but counting on concessions from the North is more likely to yield frustration.

• Talk to North Korea. The Kim government deserves nothing, but refusing to talk is a grade-school tactic that has gotten the U.S. no where. Indeed, one of the Bush administration's great policy failures was refusing to deal with the North as it began reprocessing spent fuel that had been set aside under the so-called Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration. Pyongyang both augmented its arsenal and became more confrontational in response to the Bush administration's failed attempt at isolation. Washington should be prepared to engage in both bilateral and multilateral discussions.

• Beware making the perfect the enemy of the good. An increasing number of analysts doubt that the North will ever give up its existing nuclear materials and weapons. On the other hand, Pyongyang still might be willing to halt any expansion of a program currently capable of yielding only a handful of weapons. Although a nuclear-free peninsula remains a worthy goal, a freeze might be a more realistic objective in the short-term, while offering a potential way station toward full denuclearization as the North Korean regime evolves or dissolves.

• Treat North Korean provocations with bored contempt. When Pyongyang conducted missile and nuclear tests earlier this year, Washington should have responded: "been there, done that." The U.S. needs to reward the North when it acts responsibly and punish or ignore it when it acts badly. Reprogramming the DPRK won't be easy, but the regime has been on markedly better behavior over the last month than previously. For that Washington and other nations should respond favorably.

• Let other countries, which have the most at stake, take the lead. The DPRK is primarily a problem for its neighbors, not the U.S. A messy DPRK regime collapse would loose refugees on South Korea and China, not America. The North's military is antiquated and has only limited reach. Even a North Korean nuclear arsenal would primarily be of concern to the region rather than to the U.S. Pyongyang lacks both an accurate delivery vehicle and the miniaturization technology to put a nuke on a missile; moreover, Washington has overwhelming retaliatory capability.

• Press China in particular to take a more active and forceful role. Economic sanctions are largely futile without the cooperation of the DPRK's northern neighbor. Yet so far Beijing has been more concerned about preventing a North Korean collapse and forestalling creation of a united Korea allied with America. However, the current situation is highly unstable, with the possibility of regime failure and all the attendant consequences anyway. Moreover, American military action, which could plunge the entire peninsula into war, remains possible and South Korea and Japan might respond to a growing North Korean arsenal by developing their own nuclear weapons. Should China cooperate against the North, Washington could offer to share in the cost of caring for any refugees created as well as promise not to take geopolitical advantage of Beijing by turning the peninsula into a permanent American military outpost.

• Withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea. The Republic of Korea has a vast economic and technological lead over its northern antagonist and is fully capable of constructing whatever military it thinks necessary for its defense. Nor do American conventional forces help in resolving the nuclear issue; to the contrary, by putting U.S. military personnel within reach of the North, Washington actually has created 28,000 nuclear hostages. Moreover, eliminating America's military presence on the peninsula would be the strongest possible signal to Beijing that it need not fear the security consequences of pressing the North to deal and reform, even at the risk of a state collapse.

A dozen U.S. presidents have struggled with the North Korean problem. But for the first time the life expectancy of the DPRK's leader may be shorter than the legal term of America's leader. The coming leadership transition in the North will yield both opportunities and dangers. The administration should recognize the limitations inherent to any policy towards the North, but nevertheless continue to push hard for a peaceful resolution.