Commentary Magazine


North Koreans Return to New York to Play Familiar Game With Administration

The Obama administration has invited a senior North Korean diplomat to New York this week for negotiations. But the meeting lacks a strong objective and rewards Pyongyang’s past aggression, leaving little for the U.S. to gain and much to lose. The diplomatic objectives are naïve at best. According to a State Department news release, this will be an “exploratory meeting” to see if North Korea is ready to abide by its previous commitments. The U.S. will also be checking in to see if North Korea is ready to take “concrete and irreversible steps” toward dismantling its nuclear program.

But the United States doesn’t need a meeting to explore Pyongyang’s attitude.

North Korea has ignored its previous commitments and expanded its nuclear program. Since the six-party talks collapsed in 2009, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests, killed myriad South Koreans by torpedoing a boat and shelling an island, held American citizens captive, moved forward on uranium enrichment, fired a short-range missile, and begun constructing train tracks to connect even larger missile testing and assembly sites.

These actions speak louder than the empty promises of any North Korean diplomat.

This is the same old cycle. Talks stall; North Korea reacts aggressively; it then briefly pauses its hostilities; and the international community welcomes its back to negotiations and rewards it—not for exhibiting good behavior but for simply stopping bad behavior. While talks may delay another act of North Korean aggression, they also buy time for Pyongyang to ensure its next stunt is even grander.

The Obama administration seems to recognize this pattern. But it’s oddly pressing ahead regardless. Hillary Clinton stated that “we do not intend to reward the North just for returning to the table. We will not give them anything new for actions they have already agreed to take. And we have no appetite for pursuing protracted negotiations that will only lead us right back to where we have already been.”

But the Obama administration does not seem to realize that talks are, in themselves, a reward that bolsters North Korea’s legitimacy. A better approach would be to isolate it. If the Obama administration feels pressed to do something decisive, it could support North Korean oppositionists. The last year has demonstrated the potential of citizens’ discontent to topple dictatorial regimes, and North Korea is already unpopular and unstable. If there’s one certainty, it’s that change won’t come while Kim Jong-il is in power.