How to Break the Deadlock With North Korea

Pyongyang(Pictured: Pyongyang Government Complex, No. 1.)

Relations with North Korea these days are about as cold as they could be. There haven’t been any talks between Washington and Pyongyang for many months. The South Korean government, although it spends a lot of money to store the rice it can’t sell, is not interested in sending humanitarian aid despite the recent UN report that as much as one-quarter of the North Korean population is on the edge of starvation.

Jimmy Carter has announced that he plans to go on what might be called a geopolitical elder hostel to North Korea, along with Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and other former world leaders. They aim to break the deadlock. More power to them. They could pick up a lot of money in speaking fees, just as George W. Bush is doing at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce later this month, but are instead going on what is certainly nobody’s idea of a junket.

Here’s the problem they’ll face. The United States is looking for some indication that North Korea is willing to deal on its nuclear program. And South Korea wants an apology for the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean boat that went down in disputed waters a little over a year ago. But North Korea has denied responsibility for the Cheonan. And, after the attack on Libya, North Korea believes even more in the utility of a nuclear weapons program in deterring foreign intervention.

Can the elders, with their combined 500 years of diplomatic know-how, somehow resolve this problem? It’s going to take more than silver-tongued rhetoric. Both the United States and South Korea are going to have to be ready to show a bit more flexibility. But North Korea, too, will have to bend a little.

One place to start is with an ambiguous statement from Pyongyang that can be read two different ways — as an apology to the South and as a denial of culpability by the North. Here’s an example:

We express great sorrow over the sinking of the Cheonan. We will work with South Korea [or Nam Chosun, as the DPRK refers to the South] and other countries in Northeast Asia to strengthen maritime security, prevent any future naval incidents, and ensure a peaceful and prosperous region.

The Carter delegation represents significant diplomatic firepower. It would be a shame for the elders to run up against the wall of intransigence on all sides. It’s time for some serious face-saving tactics.