07 March 2008

A "Kaesong Communique?"

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill has thrown out several options for reconciling relations between Washington and Pyongyang. In recent comments, he noted that diplomatic relations were quite possible between the two countries even given North Korea’s current human rights record – so long, of course, as North Korea gives up all of its nuclear materials (the unmentioned subtext being North Korea hand over its bombs as well).

Hill also noted that there were ways to move toward diplomatic recognition even without solving differences between Washington and Pyongyang, similar to the "Shanghai Communique" of 1972 between Nixon and Mao as Washington and Beijing began the process toward normalization of relations. In the communique, both sides expressed their own positions and agreed to disagree, noting that "the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence."

Hill's comments, and recent positive remarks by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, seem to contradict the views of President George W. Bush, who recently noted when asked about his relation with outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin that it was important to have personal relationships with significant leaders even if there were disagreements, but that Bush would never have such a relationship with Kim Jong Il. The gratuitous remark about Kim seemed to come from nowhere, yet Bush has been consistent in his public distaste for Kim and the North Korean regime. But personal distaste and international relations are very different things.

While there remains division within Washington as to just how best to deal with North Korea, and whether any real change in relations can come so long as Kim Jong Il remains in charge, much of the responsibility for the North Korean issue has been devolved down to Hill and others at the State Department, and for the time being, the engagement crowd is winning out. This doesn't mean there isn’t continued criticism and resistance, or that things like the BDA issue cannot spring up again. But there is a certain methodical calmness to the bureaucratization of relations that keeps things slowly grinding forward, or at least managed, and leaves North Korea unable to foment a renewed crisis. This has taken a key bargaining card from the North Korean hand, leaving Pyongyang with only delay and criticism in its arsenal of diplomatic weapons.

But while Hill may talk of the potential for diplomatic ties, there is a very important prerequisite from the U.S. side – North Korea must not only identify and dismantle its nuclear facilities, it must also dismantle verifiably its nuclear devices. For North Korea, this remains an unacceptable price. North Korea is ready to trust the United States and dismantle its weapons only after diplomatic ties have been established, whereas the United Sates refuses to establish diplomatic ties until North Korea has dismantled its weapons. It is a chicken and egg problem, and neither side appears ready to give in. But with the U.S. refusing to panic at the north Korean delays, Pyongyang is left with little additional leverage, and the process is likely to continue, albeit glacially at times, even if the end goal remains extremely distant.

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