Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Beating Kim's game of 'blackmail diplomacy'

North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, but it makes sense for the United States to continue talks now with a more realistic understanding of the North’s strategies and goals, writes ANDREI LANKOV

PRESIDENT Barack Obama is scheduled to arrive in Seoul today for a summit meeting with President Lee Myung-bak. No doubt, North Korea's nuclear weapons programme will play a major role in the forthcoming negotiations. It is noteworthy that Stephen Bosworth, the US envoy to North Korea, will fly to Pyongyang soon.

So, in all probability, the long-awaited direct talks between the United States and North Korea -- the first official contact since the second nuclear test in May -- are going to start in the near future. This is good, especially since this time the Americans are coming to the table with a more realistic understanding of the North's strategies and goals.

People in Washington have finally realised what should have been understood years ago: in no circumstances is North Korea going to surrender its nuclear weapons.

North Korean leaders believe that they need these weapons both as a deterrent and a diplomacy tool. Only through the existence of the nuclear programme can North Korea, a destitute third-rate dictatorship, manipulate the outside world into providing generous aid.

It is often suggested that Pyongyang might be lured into surrendering its nukes by a large lump-sum payment that could kick-start its economy (this is, essentially, the official strategy of the South Korean administration). Alas, a cash-for-nukes solution will not be acceptable to Pyongyang: the lump sum payment would be spent quickly, and without nuclear weapons, additional aid would be very moderate and would come with strict conditions about monitoring distribution.
Such conditions are not acceptable, from the North Korean perspective, since the regime uses the foreign aid, above all, to reward the faithful and bribe those groups whose discontent might threaten its survival.

Therefore, the only survival strategy is to keep manipulating neighbouring powers in order to extract more aid, with the nuclear programme being the major tool of this blackmail diplomacy.

In such circumstances it is clear that negotiations with North Korea have no chance to succeed if by "success" one means "complete, irreversible and verifiable elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme", as once postulated by President George W. Bush as the supreme goal of US policy.

Such elimination is not going to happen as long as the current regime stays in power, and its collapse, while highly probable in the long run, is unlikely to occur in the near future.

If denuclearisation is impossible, does it make sense to negotiate with Pyongyang at all? It seems that the answer should be in the affirmative: there are useful goals that can be reached via such negotiations.

First, it is possible to agree on dismantling the North Korean nuclear research and production facilities. North Koreans do not need their old labs, since their estimated five to 10 nuclear devices are sufficient for both military deterrence and diplomatic blackmail. If they produce 10 or 20 additional devices, their leverage will not increase, so they can sacrifice their research facilities if the Americans will agree to pay enough. This deal might be worthwhile, since it will decrease the probability of proliferation to third parties.

Second, North Koreans will probably agree to some nonproliferation measures. Of course, they will charge as much as they can, but once again, if agreed measures seem to be efficient, this deal makes sense.

Third, the negotiations will allow a channel of communication with Pyongyang to be kept open at a time when Kim Jong-il's health is ailing and changes (not necessarily for the better) might happen at any time.

Last but not least, the negotiations will create an environment in which North Korea's exchanges with the outside world will become possible. As the experience of the Cold War has demonstrated, these exchanges lead to the spread of information, which in turn slowly undermines the power of the regime, whose legitimacy is largely based on false claims.

In the long run, these exchanges will probably prove decisive, as they will contribute to the growth of the internal forces that alone can change North Korean state (and, among other things, bring about denuclearisation).

However, success is possible only if American negotiators will be persistent, patient and ready to bargain hard. They should also be prepared if the North Koreans, upon discovering that Americans are not rushing to shower them with cash this time, again use their favourite trick and stage yet another crisis in order to demand more money for restoring the status quo.

If this happens, calm and polite indifference to North Korean histrionics is the best policy. Perhaps slow-going negotiations will decrease the likelihood of such an outbreak. In order to succeed, the US negotiators also should be relieved from the political pressure to produce some immediate results that could be presented as a "breakthrough" to the American and international audience.

There have been many such fake breakthroughs in the past: It usually took a few years to see that these agreements were useless, or even harmful, but by that time new people were in charge in Washington, so Kim Jong-il could start the game anew.

Let's hope it will not happen again: The pace of negotiations should be slow, bargaining should be hard, and no magical breakthrough should be expected. -- NYT

The writer is professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul

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