As Barack Obama takes the long flight back across the Pacific Ocean today, he would do well to reflect on his meeting with the South Korean president, a man who truly understands and exercises smart, realist diplomacy.
On paper, South Korea and the United States approach North Korea in parallel. Both want Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons, and both see the six-party talks as the most likely venue for persuasion. But in reality, Lee’s approach is much tougher; his hand is extended — but he also has a clenched fist, and he’s not afraid to use it.
Last January, Lee suspended aid to North Korea, saying he’d reinstate it only after Pyongyang denuclearized. And while Lee has often said that South Korea’s top priority is peace and reconciliation with the North (a Lincolnian goal if ever there was one), he has also been smart enough to amp up his military, especially at the border. Lee has maintained a staff that could stare down Pyongyang and has fortified his outside alliances to check North Korea. Though Lee prefers international economic sanctions against North Korea, he has also made no secret that Northern military aggression would be formidably matched.
Needless to say, this approach has perturbed the North, long accustomed to extracting Southern concession. In the last year, Pyongyang declared an “all-out confrontational policy” toward South Korea, ratcheted up provocations at sea, hurled insults, held South Koreans captive, and tested missiles. Lee has nevertheless held his ground.
Yet despite his toughness, Lee has also established opportunities for the North to cooperate and re-engage. Most recently, Lee has sought what he dubbed the Grand Bargain: if Pyongyang dismantles its nuclear program in a single, definitive step, the South will guarantee North Korea’s security and offer significant economic assistance.
In contrast, the U.S. is rewarding Northern bad behavior. Abducting American journalists won the North a photo-op visit from Clinton. Further fits of pique have earned the North attention from an envoy, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, who is now concretely scheduled to visit Pyongyang on Dec. 8. Obama hopes bilateral discussions will return North Korea to the six-party talks. But in reality, direct talks leave the North with even more reason to avoid six-party company.
The irony in all this is that Lee’s actions represent exactly the strategy Obama has professed since his Inaugural Address. But as Lee has proved to the North, his strategy involves more than just words.