10/31/2011 01:53 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2011

Managing an Unmanageable North Korea

By refusing to negotiate in earnest with North Korea, the Obama administration has taken a fateful step toward renewed confrontation.

After two days of talks in Geneva last week, U.S. and North Korean negotiators put the best face on the outcome, but State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland got it right: "While there's been some narrowing of differences, we haven't had any breakthroughs here and significant issues do remain." Even if the talks reconvene, they are likely to be short-lived without a change of heart in Washington.

Pyongyang seems open to a deal. In a press interview on the eve of the talks, Kim Jong-il reaffirmed what he had told the Chinese and the Russians, that "six-way talks should be quickly resumed without preconditions." He had previously committed the North to a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests while negotiations were under way, but "without preconditions" underscored the North's position that it was willing to suspend uranium enrichment and allow inspectors into Yongbyon as well as ship out the new fuel rods needed to restart its plutonium program -- but only in return for energy aid.

Instead of testing whether Kim means what he said in diplomatic give-and-take, Washington is insisting that Pyongyang satisfy its preconditions. Announcing the return to talks, a senior administration official confirmed it was still uncompromising: "We are not prepared to reward bad behavior and we are not prepared to move forward to the next stage unless they show a true commitment. So this is ... frankly a management strategy." When officials talk about managing a situation, they don't have a policy.

U.S. negotiator Stephen Bosworth resigned. His replacement, Glyn Davies, already Ambassador to the IAEA, could add this task to his portfolio without bruising confirmation hearings that might expose the policy vacuum.

By eschewing a deal to head off trouble, Washington is ignoring a hard-learned lesson that negotiations with North Korea have succeeded in the past where talks have failed. Pyongyang halted the reprocessing of plutonium for twelve years as promised in the North-South Joint Declaration on Denuclearization in 1991 and the Agreed Framework in 1994 and suspended missile tests for seven years as pledged to William Perry in 1999 -- long after Washington failed to fulfill its part of the deals.

The North may agree to talk further but not for long. In the meantime, it will continue to enrich uranium. Next year it can reignite its plutonium program, resume missile test-launches, and test a new nuclear warhead it says it has. It is bad enough for the North to have a handful of nuclear devices, and far worse for it to have dozens of warheads that it can deliver by ballistic missiles.

Unbounded North Korean nuclear-arming could have grave consequences for U.S. security in the region and the world. It will call into question President Obama's determination to prevent proliferation. And while it will shore up U.S. alliances in the near term, it will eventually sow doubts in South Korea and Japan about relying on the United States for their security. Already some in Seoul are calling for the return of U.S. nuclear weapons to the peninsula or worse -- resuming a South Korean nuclear weapons program that Washington succeeded in stopping twice before. It will also strengthen the hand of right-wing nationalists in Tokyo who distrust the United States and favor nuclear-arming. Worst of all, it will prompt a new drive for U.N. sanctions, which China and Russia, aware of the U.S. refusal to deal, may be reluctant to support. That will generate pressure in Washington to confront them, which could set off a new Cold War in Asia that only adds to allied insecurity.

Why is the Obama administration refusing to negotiate? Partisan politics. In the run-up to the talks, Republicans spearheaded by Senator John Kyl and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had warned they would oppose any deal with Pyongyang.

The United States is no longer rich and powerful enough to ignore its national security interests and let domestic politics drive its foreign policy. Allies like South Korea learned to lobby Washington to get what they wanted. The perverted political process sometimes led Washington to treat alliances as if they were ends in themselves rather than a means to other ends.

Far weaker countries like North Korea ignore their security at their peril. Although some observers misread the North as motivated by ideology or its own internal politics during its leadership transition, Pyongyang has been relentless in seeking security. It had played allies China and the Soviet Union against one another until the late 1980s when, faced with a Soviet Union in collapse and a China on a capitalist road, it moved to end its lifelong enmity with the United States, South Korea, and Japan for the sake of its security. At the same time, it stepped up development of nuclear weapons and missiles, but it was prepared to forgo them -- and did. It was using its weapons' programs as both bait and bludgeon -- as inducement for cooperation and as threat to force Washington to be its friend. Its strategy may be changing now that it has resumed playing China off against Russia and is preparing to make more and improved weapons.

The only hope for avoiding confrontation now rests on Seoul. During his state visit to Washington, President Lee Myung-bak reaffirmed his so-called "principled position" of pressuring Pyongyang into denuclearizing, but the political winds may be shifting in Seoul. Ruling party legislators, worried they could lose National Assembly elections in April and the presidential election in December, have pressured Lee into sacking his hard-line Unification Minister and stepping up economic engagement at the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North. A turnaround in Seoul may come too late to stay Kim Jong-il's hand, however.

Managing the unmanageable won't work. If Washington insists on getting something for nothing from North Korea, the only thing it will get is trouble.