Having visited North Korea 14 times, let me caution against reading too much into yesterday’s report that the secretive nation’s leader, Kim Jong Il, may be dying of pancreatic cancer. The news came out of the notoriously unreliable South Korean media, citing sources from that country’s conservative-leaning intelligence agency which has often had its own political agenda—including destabilizing North Korea. The same goes for the similarly sourced, and equally unverifiable, media claims last week blaming Pyongyang for a wave of cyberattacks aimed at American and South Korean targets.
As one Bush official recently told Congress, North Korea wants agreements with the U.S. that are “election-proof… agreements that will outlast a change of presidencies.”
Nonetheless, Kim Jong Il did look gaunt and haggard when he made a rare public appearance on Wednesday, and the continuing rumors, speculation, and uncertainty—about his health, political stability in North Korea, and the intentions of the Pyongyang regime—serve to highlight the growing dangers of the current crisis on the Korean peninsula. The North recently tested several missiles and a nuclear bomb, two American journalists remain detained in Pyongyang, negotiations are stalled, the Obama administration is pushing for sanctions, and there seems, for now, to be no prospect of a thaw in relations.
How did a president who campaigned in part on a pledge to engage American adversaries, including the North Koreans, end up embroiled in a much more serious confrontation with Pyongyang—and pushing a much tougher policy—than the administration of George W. Bush? And why has the North repeatedly rebuffed Obama’s conciliatory overtures?
It’s easy to blame North Korea—to depict Kim Jong Il as an ailing madman presiding over an out-of-control rogue state. In fact, however, there is a clear logic to Pyongyang’s behavior. It’s a response to what the North views as nearly a decade of American inconsistency, flip-flops and unfulfilled commitments. That has led a North Korean regime anxious about its own survival to conclude that having nukes is a better guarantee of security than any negotiated denuclearization deal with the United States.
It wasn’t always like this. When George W. Bush took office, the North was in negotiation mode. Its Yongbyon nuclear reactor had been frozen under the 1994 Agreed Framework deal reached with the Clinton administration. Madeleine Albright had visited Pyongyang in October 2000. Kim Jong Il had even invited Bill Clinton to the North Korean capital for a summit.
The disputed 2000 election prevented that meeting from happening, and George W. Bush quickly discarded Clinton’s engagement policy. Instead, he added the North to the “Axis of Evil,” publicly declared that he “loathed” Kim Jong Il, scuttled the Agreed Framework, and adopted a series of sanctions. Against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration’s talk of “regime change,” the North in response restarted Yongbyon, produced enough plutonium for a half-dozen bombs, and, in October 2006, staged a nuclear test.
Following the test, the administration reversed course. The president allowed envoy Christopher Hill to negotiate a deal under which the North, in return for fuel oil and other aid, again shut down Yongbyon, admitted international inspectors, and began disabling the facility. Last year, in a series of unprecedented steps, Pyongyang turned over more than 18,000 pages of operating records from Yongbyon, provided a declaration with new details of its plutonium program, and pledged future cooperation to resolve unanswered questions about its uranium-enrichment efforts and its proliferation activities.
As part of the deal, Hill told the North it would be removed from the U.S. list of “state sponsors of terror.” However, contrary to Hill’s assurances, hardliners in Washington demanded that Pyongyang accept an intrusive set of procedures to verify its nuclear capabilities before delisting could occur.
The North Koreans accused the U.S. of moving the goal posts, and they reacted by restarting operations at Yongbyon. Hoping to salvage a deteriorating situation, Hill flew to Pyongyang last October and reached a verbal understanding on verification that enabled Bush to proceed with delisting. In December, however, under renewed pressure from hardliners in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, the administration again demanded the North accept an intrusive verification regime. When Pyongyang refused, the U.S. threatened to halt promised shipments of fuel. Negotiations collapsed.
Its personality cult, rigid conformity and fire-breathing rhetoric notwithstanding, North Korea is not a monolith. It has moderates willing to entertain the idea of trading nukes and missiles for American concessions, and hardliners, especially in the military, adamantly opposed to such steps. The Bush administration’s flip-flops during its last six months in office appear to have been the final straw, convincing Pyongyang that the U.S. was reneging on its commitments, and strengthening those who believed Washington could never be a reliable partner. Instead, the hardliners argued that the North’s security could only be ensured by an enhanced nuclear “deterrent,” not agreements easily undermined by America’s constantly shifting political currents.
As Georgetown University’s Victor Cha, who served as an Asia expert in the Bush administration’s National Security Council and had been Christopher Hill’s deputy in the later stages of the six-party talks, put it in recent congressional testimony, the North wanted agreements with the U.S. that were “election-proof… agreements that will outlast a change of presidencies.”
Kim Jong Il’s illness and concerns about the succession, which arose around the same time, likely fueled the anxiety in the ruling elite about Washington’s intentions and the regime’s survival, giving more ammunition to those advocating a harder line. Pyongyang’s long-range-missile test in April, nuclear test in May, increasingly belligerent rhetoric, and continuing rejection of U.S. overtures for talks have been the result.
Where does this leave the Obama administration? While insisting the door for negotiations remains open, the U.S. has made intensified sanctions the heart of its North Korea policy. The problem is that while sanctions will certainly hurt, there is no evidence they will produce a change in the North’s behavior. Instead, they are only solidifying the view in Pyongyang that Washington’s intentions are so “hostile” there is little point in talking, which may explain why the administration’s efforts to send special envoy Stephen Bosworth have been rebuffed.
Short of North Korea’s collapse or a dramatic change in regime, however, talks offer the only realistic prospect—however uncertain—of rolling back Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program. But unless it sees a U.S. willingness to address its concerns, the North is unlikely to come back to the table. If Obama hopes to denuclearize North Korea, he will have to persuade Pyongyang that negotiations, not more bombs, will provide the best guarantee of its security. After the last eight years, that will be a difficult task.
Mike Chinoy is a senior fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy and the author of Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis . He was a foreign correspondent for CNN for 24 years, serving as bureau chief in Beijing and Hong Kong and as senior Asia correspondent.