Listening to the Axis of Evil

How should the United States and its allies deal with evil regimes that abuse their own people and threaten world order?

During the cold war, two Soviet Nobel Prize winners disagreed on whether Western governments should treat Moscow as a viable partner in negotiations to control the nuclear arms race.

The author and Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, said no, putting human rights first; the nuclear physicist Andrei D. Sakharov said yes, because he believed the stakes for humanity were so high.

Today Washington, Seoul and Tokyo face a similar choice as they confront North Korean leaders seeking to expand their nuclear missile capabilities. In 2002, President George W. Bush placed North Korea on the “axis of evil.” He said he loathed the government for permitting more than one million of its subjects to starve.

But even if his repugnance was justified, it did not serve American interests to end a dialogue that, during the administration of President Bill Clinton, had offered some hope of limiting or terminating North Korea’s nuclear program.

“We are good and they are bad” is both a simplistic and dangerous approach to foreign policy. If a cruel dictatorship is willing to negotiate security arrangements that make war less likely, democratic governments should engage with them and seek a deal.

Washington’s reluctance to engage with the North Korean government in Pyongyang reflects a lingering hope that the North will eventually implode and the South will absorb it. But such hopes have existed for years, only to be dashed by reality.

The North is ruled by a totalitarian dynastic dictatorship. Organized resistance or even factional discord is nearly impossible within the government. Meanwhile, it is building a nuclear arsenal that endangers the world. Should this arsenal grow, it could set off a chain reaction of proliferation in Seoul, Tokyo and Taipei, and some North Korean weapons might even reach aspiring terrorists.

The United States has worked to “reset” its relations with Russia and to open up dialogue with Myanmar. But the Obama administration has done little to break the diplomatic logjam with the world’s leading rogue state. To be sure, American diplomats have recently met with North Koreans in New York and Geneva. But the Americans tend to begin talks with a nonstarter: they insist that North Korea disarm and accept international inspections before real negotiations can begin.

For many Americans and South Koreans, this approach makes sense. After all, the North Koreans have lied about their nuclear program and reneged on their commitments in the past. To make matters worse, North Korea conducted a second nuclear test in 2009 and launched missiles despite United Nations resolutions banning such activities. And last year, North Korea bombed an island awarded to South Korea in 1953 and is widely believed to have torpedoed a South Korean ship.

But if Washington wants to curb the North’s nuclear programs, it must take into account how North Korea’s rulers view the world.

The government in Pyongyang complains, for example, that the United States stalled on fulfilling its obligations under the 1994 “Agreed Framework” to build two light-water nuclear reactors in exchange for a halt to North Korea’s plutonium production.

It took eight years to break ground on these reactors, and by that time Washington was pursuing a hard line toward Pyongyang. To make matters worse, the 2005 joint statement signed by China, Russia, Japan, the United States and the two Koreas was vague, allowing Washington and Pyongyang to interpret it as they liked.

North Koreans point out that they never agreed to the Northern Limit Line, which was imposed by the United Nations after the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953. Many legal experts agree that the line runs contrary to international norms because it curves north along North Korea’s coast, giving five islands to the South and blocking the North’s access to valuable fishing grounds.

Moreover, North Korea has for years called for a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice. Washington and Seoul have balked, saying that the priority is nuclear nonproliferation. But the failure to conclude a comprehensive peace treaty fans distrust and leaves the door open to renewed hostilities. The North asserts that the South’s maneuvers with American forces are provocative.

To recognize that North Korea’s leaders have their own perspective on these matters does not mean condoning North Korea’s nuclear policies or penchant for counterfeiting money and attempting to assassinate defectors in Seoul. But a basic acknowledgment of the North’s position would make peace easier to achieve.

A peace agreement would require adjusting the Northern Limit Line to create a military-free joint fishing zone and a North Korean agreement to return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It must also normalize diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang, replacing sanctions with economic and technological assistance and steps to bring North Korea into the global community.

Recent talk of building a gas pipeline from Russia into both Koreas could move all parties toward making the Korean Peninsula a zone of peace and greater prosperity. The world has always had its bad guys. Negotiating with them can be distasteful but useful — as the many arms control accords signed by the United States and the Soviet Union attest.

To negotiate effectively with North Korea, we must accept that trust and personal relationships matter to North Koreans. While Americans often push directly for an explicit commitment drafted by lawyers, the Kim dynasty has shown its preference for deal-making at the highest levels, involving former President Jimmy Carter in 1994, President Bill Clinton in 2000, and former vice president Al Gore in 2009.

We should therefore enter negotiations without explicit preconditions and show that all parties are willing to make concessions to achieve mutual gain.

President Obama won a Nobel Prize for encouraging negotiation; he should now spearhead talks with North Korea.

By Walter C. Clemens Jr., a professor of political science at Boston University and the author of Getting to Yes in Korea.

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