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Riding the Rollercoaster of Engagement Expectations

[Klingner Column] Breaking the Repeated Cycle
Bruce Klingner  |  2011-02-24 16:43
The inter-Korean military talks in February followed the predictable pattern of engagement with North Korea. The cycle that has played out countless times before has been:

1. North Korean provocation (e.g. threat, military attack, or being caught violating an agreement);
2. U.S. or South Korea threatens to respond with sanctions, isolation, or withholding of benefits;
3. North Korea blames others for its actions and escalates tensions by threatening retaliation;
4. China calls for restraint by all sides;
5. Pyongyang subsequently claims it is willing to return to negotiations or the status quo;
6. North Korea is praised for lowering the tensions that it previously raised;
7. Euphoric expectations that the resumption of dialogue will lead to breakthroughs;
8. Eventual collapse of negotiations generates post-meeting depression. North Korea, China, and progressives blame the failure on U.S. or South Korean hardline policy or lack of flexibility;
9. Relative calm until the next North Korean provocation.

The South-North Korean talks were driven in part by perceptions that the United States has become more willing to resume bilateral dialogue with North Korea. Seoul may either have felt direct pressure from Washington to resume its own dialogue with Pyongyang or assessed it was in South Koreas interest not to perceived as being left behind by Washington. Doing so would have created impressions of rifts in the alliance over North Korea policy.

North Korea Changes Tactics

Pyongyang used its annual New Years Day joint editorial to initiate a new charm offensive. But as the inter-Korean military talks showed, even when North Korea is reaching out, its behavior is more offensive than charming. The shift in tactics is consistent with standard North Korean negotiating behavior of alternating between provocations and seemingly conciliatory behavior to attain its goals.

Pyongyang realizes it must lower tensions on the Korean Peninsula and appear to be a reasonable negotiating partner. In order to resume dialogue with Washington, Pyongyang understands it must fulfill one of the Obama administration's preconditions by first reaching out to South Korea. Other North Korean foreign policy objectives include: undermine new U.S. and South Korean efforts to impose additional sanctions for the attack on Yeonpyeong Island and revelation of the uranium facility at Yongbyon; weaken international resolve to maintain existing punitive measures; and gain diplomatic and economic benefits.

As the collapsed military talks showed, little progress is expected from renewed dialogue since:

1. North Korea shows no inclination to alter its behavior, address South Korean security concerns or implement its Six-Party Talks denuclearization commitments;
2. South Korea is unwilling to abandon its requirement that North Korean apologize for the two military attacks last year and provide evidence of willingness to make progress in nuclear negotiations;
3. Few experts in or outside of government believe North Korea is serious about making progress;
4. North Korea's provocations in 2009 even as the Obama administration was trying to initiate dialogue caused a belated epiphany that Pyongyang, and not U.S. policy under Bush, was to blame for the North Korean nuclear problem.

China Not a Factor

Contrary to depictions by the White House and some media, the mid-January U.S.-China summit did not induce the Koreas to announce their agreement to resume dialogue less than a day later. The initial kabuki dance preparations for military-to-military talks had been gestating since North Koreas New Years editorial.

The joint summit statement was bland, with grueling negotiations required to forge even the minimalist paragraph on North Korea which eventually emerged. Certain aspects of the summit statement were overplayed, e.g. that China expressed concern about North Koreas HEU effort. In fact, Beijing maintained its value-neutral position, refusing to condemn Pyongyang or promise to take any tangible steps to redress the issue.

China has shown itself to be part of the problem rather than the solution. Beijings actions have undermined international efforts to resolve the Korean crisis. China refused to accept clear, compelling, and comprehensive evidence about North Koreas unprovoked acts of war in 2010, obstructed efforts to penalize Pyongyang for yet another violation of UN resolutions, and criticized the U.S. and South Korea for taking steps to prevent further North Korean attacks.

Uncertain Path Ahead

It remains to be seen whether the collapse of the inter-Korean talks will deter Washington from reaching out to Pyongyang. The Obama administration increasingly sees the lack of any contact at all with North Korea to be a detriment. However, moving forward with U.S.-North Korean meetings prior to fulfilling South Korean preconditions is a path fraught with danger.

The Obama administration has painted itself into the same corner as the Bush administration in refraining from any engagement for so long that any dialogue will appear to be a major policy reversal. This could be managed with proper public diplomacy. The greater problem, however, is that it appears there is no U.S. strategy beyond simply believing that dialogue will prevent, or at least deter, North Korean provocations.

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