At the recent off-the-record meeting between U.S. and North Korean representatives at a conference in California, journalists were eager for any crumb of information about what the two interlocutors said to each other. The dialogue was "useful," according to the North Korean representative. The U.S. side remarked that the mood was "better than we've seen in months."
Talk about ho-hum journalism.
But, in the interests of diplomacy, this is precisely the kind of media coverage that U.S.-North Korean relations needs at the moment. In fact, for real progress to be made in resolving the longest-standing adversarial relationship the United States has with any country in the world, journalists would be well-advised to sit on their hands and keep their mouths shut. At the very least, all those involved in the sensitive negotiations should agree to say absolutely nothing of interest to the press.
As a journalist, I don't feel very good about making this recommendation. Handcuff the reporters? Muzzle the broadcasters? That's what North Korea does. Surely I'm not advising that we take a page from their book.
But here's why I think that the only way the two sides can achieve any real compromise is through sustained and secret dialogue on a comprehensive agreement, outside of the media spotlight.
For the better part of 20 years, during those periods when they've been willing to talk with each other, the United States and North Korea have subscribed to the "step by step" approach to rapprochement. There is much talk at these moments of trust-building, of confidence-building, of finding one's way across the stream stone by slippery stone.
This cautious engagement approach, which has a veneer of common sense, has yielded two significant agreements -- the Agreed Framework of 1994 and the Six Party Talks agreement of 2007 -- and a few minor accords. Aside from some shipments of food and oil, these agreements have yielded nothing more than a half-built light-water nuclear reactor (by the United States and allies) and a half-destroyed nuclear complex (by North Korea).
What the agreements didn't accomplish far outweighs what they did accomplish. There is still no peace agreement to replace the armistice that ended the hostilities of the Korean War. There is no diplomatic relationship between Pyongyang and Washington. North Korea still has some kind of nuclear capability; the United States continues to contain the country with overwhelming force. Except for North Korea's nukes, the situation doesn't look a whole different from 20 years ago.
Contrast that picture with U.S.-Chinese relations. China has nuclear weapons. China is the only rising power that the Pentagon fears will compete seriously with the United States. China still has human rights problems. But Washington and Beijing have a very significant relationship.
What will it take for the United States and North Korea to move into a relationship comparable to the one that the United States enjoys with China? Step-by-step engagement won't do the trick. Each time the United States negotiates a partial agreement with North Korea, it comes under attack by conservatives in Congress and the media. Such opposition contributed to the deep-sixing of the Agreed Framework. Similar opposition forced the Bush administration to backtrack on concessions made near the end of its second term.
Step-by-step engagement, in other words, is just another form of death by a thousand cuts. If John Bolton in the Wall Street Journal and Sam Brownback (R-KS) in Congress can't stop the first engagement agreement, then they will rally their forces to block the next one or the one after that. While the diplomats are "building confidence" through partial agreements, they are losing confidence at home because of the attacks of their opponents.
So, what's the only way around this paradox? The obvious answer is a comprehensive agreement that covers all major obstacles in the relationship between the two countries. The less obvious answer is: this comprehensive agreement should be negotiated in secret. If journalists leak word of the agreement before it is hammered out and agreed upon by both sides, it will have the same effect as the partial agreements of the past. The opposition will have a chance to sharpen their knives and get ready for the kill.
The Nixon administration negotiated the opening to China in secret. The Dayton Agreement emerged from a tightly controlled three-week negotiation among Serb, Croat, and Bosnian representatives. The Oslo Accords came after 14 secret meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators between December 1992 and August 1993 (though ultimately unsuccessful, these accords nearly brought off a peace agreement in the world's most conflict-ridden region).
With envoy Stephen Bosworth likely to visit North Korea this month, the U.S. team should bear in mind the lessons of Beijing, Dayton, and Oslo. Keep it comprehensive. Keep it secret. And remain at the negotiating table until the job is done.
The journalists will be disappointed at not getting their scoops. Too bad. Peace is, frankly, more important than a good news story.
Originally published in Asia Chronicle.