North Korea: Why Engagement Now?

When Nixon met MaoRelations between the United States and North Korea, never particularly warm, have truly frosted over in recent months. The Obama administration, in the wake of the Cheonan incident, has added financial sanctions to a lengthening list of efforts to box in Pyongyang. In conjunction with Seoul, Washington has ramped up military exercises in the region. Six Party Talks have been suspended since the end of the Bush administration, and there haven’t been bilateral discussions for more than six months. Hillary Clinton has continued to speak of U.S. willingness to sit down and negotiate. But in Washington, engagement with North Korea is about as popular as BP stock. Anti-American rhetoric and threats, meanwhile, remain de rigueur in Pyongyang.

This downturn in relations coincides with an upturn in speculation about regime instability inside North Korea. Kim Jong Il’s health, complicated by kidney failure and partial paralysis, has reportedly taken a turn for the worse as outside observers identify signs of dementia (speculation that actually goes back at least several years). The political scene is populated by hardline octogenarians and a chosen successor, Kim’s youngest son, whose inexperience won’t win him much influence in a Confucian-inflected system tilted in favor of a narrow group of elders. Meanwhile, the government has taken several steps backward on economic reform, though popular involvement in markets remains high.

A regime uncooperative in its foreign policy and unstable at home would seem ripe for containment if not actual rollback. A few more turns of the screw, according to conventional wisdom in Washington, and the North Korean system will collapse or, at the very least, become grudgingly cooperative. The United States might well have tried this approach before and failed—under the Clinton administration from 1993 to 1994 and the Bush administration from 2001 to 2006—but surely three times is a charm. The North Korean system is weaker than ever before, so goes the argument, and the combination of economic sanctions, political isolation, and military containment should do the trick this time around.

But this is wishful thinking. There are no signs from within North Korea that either a popular uprising along the Polish model is in the offing or a North Korean Gorbachev in the wings. Nor is it clear that what might replace the current regime—for instance, a military putsch—would adopt policies any more congenial to international opinion.

Engagement, the regime-change enthusiasts tell us, has palpably failed. North Korea has nukes, commits egregious human rights abuse, refuses to engage in serious economic reform, repeatedly threatens the United States and its allies, and torpedoed a South Korean ship. North Korea is unpredictable and treacherous. Engagement can’t work with such states.

And yet, engagement with such a state did work. A closer look at U.S. engagement with China in the early 1970s reveals that prospects were just as bleak then as they are today with North Korea. Washington nevertheless pursued a game-changing strategy with Beijing and, as a result, changed the face of geopolitics.

The Big Game Changer

The Nixon administration didn’t wait for the perfect moment to engage Beijing. China in the early 1970s was in the twilight of one of its most incoherent political eras. The Cultural Revolution had been raging since the mid-1960s, the country had descended into virtual civil war, and Mao Zedong was locked in a protracted conflict with his presumed successor Lin Biao. Mao himself, in his eighties, was in poor health. He had sunk into depression and, in January 1972, suffered a heart attack. The succession issue was unclear. Lin Biao died in a mysterious plane crash; Deng Xiaoping was under house arrest in Jiangxi. The future of Chinese communism hung in the balance.

The Chinese and the Americans, despite the domestic turmoil in their respective countries, were thinking big on the foreign policy front. China was deeply worried about a preemptive Soviet military attack. The Nixon administration, meanwhile, was also concerned about the Soviet Union and sought a way to constrain the rival superpower. Nixon, too, was thinking about achieving a major foreign policy victory at a time when the United States was bogged down in the Vietnam War. In January 1969, the president scribbled a note that read: “Chinese Communists: Short range—no change. Long range—we do not want 800,000,000 living in angry isolation. We want contact.”

Even with both sides converging in their geopolitical outlooks, a top-level meeting was not easy to arrange. The United States pursued back-channel exploration through Warsaw that led to 136 low-level meetings but no progress.

At this point, Nixon and his foreign policy advisor Henry Kissinger were not driven by economic concerns, such as exploiting the mythical Chinese market. In the early 1970s, the Chinese economy was in a woeful state. Economic reform, beginning in the countryside, would have to wait until the end of the decade. Trade was not the motivating factor on the U.S. side.

Nor did China’s overall foreign policy approach dissuade Nixon and Kissinger from their engagement effort. Beijing refused to give up the contingency of retaking Taiwan by force. China was still bankrolling any number of forces that were hostile to the United States, from national liberation movements in Africa and Latin America to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. China was even willing to go to war—with India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979—though it tended to be rather isolationist during the period of the Cultural Revolution.

The Nixon-Kissinger team was rather single-minded in their approach to China. They fundamentally didn’t care about what was happening inside the country or within the leadership. They didn’t care very much about China’s global involvement either. China was an important piece in a geopolitical game. And the Nixon administration was looking for a game changer that would fundamentally alter Cold War dynamics.

Lessons for U.S.-North Korean Relations

In the 1970s, the Nixon administration didn’t wait for the Chinese to work out their internal political squabbles before extending the olive branch. Nor did Washington wait for some sign that Beijing was committed to economic reform, rapprochement with Taiwan, or a repudiation of its support for leftist national liberation movements overseas. To the extent that Nixon or Kissinger considered such variables, they assumed that change would come after engagement or as a result of engagement, not prior to engagement.

With North Korea, the current crop of policymakers in Washington has put the cart before the horse. They see engagement as a reward for North Korea’s good behavior. We will work on a peace treaty to replace the current Korean War armistice if North Korea returns to denuclearization. We will remove obstacles that stand between North Korea and engagement with the international economic community if North Korea shows signs of economic reform. We will pursue diplomatic relations if North Korea improves its human rights record.

But as the case of détente with China demonstrates, such changes take place either as part of the short-term engagement process or, more likely, somewhere down the line when the leadership can safely embrace the changes as indigenous rather than imposed by outside actors. If we want to change the game with North Korea, we have to stop looking for indications that North Korea is already changing its game because we may well be looking for a very long time. If we want to influence the political succession in North Korea, the economic reforms, the environment of human rights, and so on, we can do so only by being a player. Right now, we’re on the sidelines, cheering or (mostly) booing, and vainly calling on the players we know (such as China) to act according to our wishes. That strategy has yielded practically nothing.

In addition to the question of sequencing, there are two other important lessons from the experience of Chinese détente. The first is geopolitical, the second diplomatic.

Both China and the United States were preoccupied with the rise of the Soviet Union in the late 1960s. Today, both Washington and Pyongyang are preoccupied with the rise of China. The Obama administration is desperate to recapture the ground lost by the Bush administration when it ignored Asia for the better part of two terms in order to focus on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Beijing gained considerable economic and political leverage in the region during this period.

Pyongyang, meanwhile, has a great fear of dependency on the Chinese. This dependency is enshrined in the word sadaejuui, or flunkeyism, which defined the tributary relationship that once bound Korea to China and which serves today as the antonym to juche, or self-reliance, the nominal philosophy that governs North Korea. North Korea tries as best it can to efface China’s role in saving the country during the Korean War. It has reluctantly opened up its mineral resources to a voracious Chinese extraction industry, relies now on Chinese trade to offset the decline in inter-Korean relations, and still depends heavily on Beijing for food and energy. It remains distinctly uncomfortable with this reliance on its considerably larger and more powerful neighbor.

The United States and North Korea, in other words, could be driven by the same geopolitical considerations that pushed Mao and Nixon together: a desire to constrain the other elephant in the room. Pyongyang could diminish its dangerous dependency on Beijing by negotiating a deal with Washington. And Washington could drive a wedge between North Korea and its primary benefactor, reduce Chinese influence on the Korean peninsula, and find a new way of inserting itself into a region that has witnessed a relative decline in U.S. influence over the last decade or so. Analogies are, of course, imperfect instruments. North Korea is not quite the powerful balancer that China was in the 1970s. But by engaging North Korea as part of a regional strategy that includes strong relations with other powers wary of Chinese influence such as Vietnam, the United States can prevent the resurrection of the Chinese tributary system that held sway in the region for hundreds of years.

Geopolitics drove the U.S.-China détente. It could do the same between Washington and Pyongyang.

The final lesson of the U.S.-Chinese détente is secrecy. Nixon and Kissinger pursued their policy with utmost delicacy, shielding even the State Department from news of the initial contact. The deal was deliberately worked out as a whole, not piece-meal, to avoid having this or that provision be challenged at the expense of the entire new relationship. Game-changers of this nature usually begin in secrecy. Consider the Oslo accords, negotiated in secret over the course of 14 meetings in two years. The breakthrough in U.S.-Libyan relations was also achieved after nine months of secret talks.

Any transformation in relations between the United States and North Korea requires comparable secrecy, at least at the beginning. Any president that publically endorses engagement with the longest running adversary of the United States would come under immediate criticism, from naysayers within the administration and certainly from political opponents in Congress and the media.

Is such a strategy worth the risk? With China, the United States was dealing with an unpredictable leader at an unpredictable time, but at some point Washington had to grapple with the reality of such a big country as China. North Korea, on the other hand, is small, with a population fewer than 25 million people. What North Korea has, however, is nuclear weapons—and this fact has pushed the United States to pay attention to a country it frankly would prefer to ignore (or, at minimum, subcontract the containment policy entirely to the South Koreans). North Korea is also in a vital location. Resolution of the North Korean issue, if done more on U.S. than Chinese terms, could provide considerable long-term economic and political dividends for the United States.

All strategies have drawbacks. The overture to China led to Taiwan losing its UN seat. Washington looked the other way when Pakistan, which served as the intermediary for Kissinger’s approach to Beijing, slaughtered as many as a million Bengalis in what was then East Pakistan. And the Nixon administration endured some criticism for appearing to kowtow to Mao (on February 28, 1972, after Nixon returned from Beijing, the Detroit Free Press published a headline that read “They Got Taiwan; We got Egg Rolls”).

There will be inevitable drawbacks to North Korean engagement as well. Human rights will not be at the forefront of the negotiations. South Korea, like Taiwan in the 1970s, may well feel slighted or worse. But the benefits in terms of peace and security in the short term and economic and social transformation in the long term far outweigh these drawbacks.

The Obama administration will encounter serious challenges to its domestic agenda after the mid-term elections this fall. It will continue to struggle with foreign policy debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. A game changer with North Korea could be the triumph that Obama needs to rescue the remaining two years of his term. Perhaps the president already realizes this geopolitical truth. Perhaps even now Obama is scribbling a note to himself in the Oval Office that reads: “North Korean Communists: Short range—no change. Long range—we do not want 25,000,000 living in angry isolation with a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. We want contact.”

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.