“There’s a growing understanding of the issues that need to be resolved,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill after meeting with his North Korean counterpart in Geneva late last week. Washington’s chief negotiator at the six-party talks was doing his best to show progress in the inconclusive negotiations to disarm Kim Jong Il’s abhorrent state. To date, Pyongyang has shown little inclination to provide a full accounting of its nuclear weapons programs in compliance with a prior agreement to do so by the end of last year.
A weakened Bush administration appears to be at a loss as to what to do in the face of the North’s recent intransigence. In the first week of this month, Hill imposed a March-end deadline on Pyongyang to honor its commitments, but it is apparent that the announced due date is meaningless and that the United States will impose no penalty for a failure to meet his timeline.
Diplomacy may require patience, but it certainly works best with the threat of coercion, especially where rogues armed with dangerous weapons are involved. Analysts say there is no military option against North Korea. Even if this notion is correct—which it is not—the tolerance of the President is a fundamental mistake. Events over the past several weeks show that Washington is not playing its strongest cards at an important moment.
An unseasonably warm and dry winter is adversely affecting the North’s autumn crop of wheat and barley. This abnormal weather comes on top of last August’s devastating floods. As a result, the UN’s World Food Program expects a larger-than-usual shortfall in North Korea’ harvest. Surging grain prices on global markets do not help Kim Jong Il. Moreover, both China and South Korea have substantially reduced shipments of food and fertilizer to the North Korean regime. “For Kim Jong Il, this will be his most difficult year,” says Park Syung-je of the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul.
The key is the new South Korean government. President Lee Myung-bak has announced that Seoul’s aid will be closely tied to Pyongyang’s adherence to its pledges of disarmament. Moreover, Lee, who travels to Washington in the middle of April, wants to align his North Korean polices with Washington’s. This means that the South will largely abandon the approaches of his predecessors, namely the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae Jung and the nearly identical Peace and Prosperity Policy of Roh Moo-hyun. Seoul’s new approach isolates China and makes it the sole supporter of North Korea. This permits the United States to put Beijing on the spot.
So the Bush administration has new tools to coerce Pyongyang and, more importantly, Beijing. The main issue, therefore, is whether Washington has the will to use them.