By Leon V. Sigal:

October 2007 was the most promising time for relations with North Korea since 2000. Early that month, six-party talks yielded an accord on “second-phase actions” under which the North pledged to make “a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs” and to disable its plutonium facilities at Yongbyon, pending their permanent dismantlement. In return, it was promised energy aid and an end to U.S. sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act and removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. The agreement made no mention of verification, which was left to a later phase of negotiations.

At the same time, South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun was signing a potentially far-reaching summit agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that included, among other provisions, a pledge “to discuss ways of designating a joint fishing area in the West Sea to avoid accidental clashes and turning it into a peace area and also to discuss measures to build military confidence.” Had that pledge been carried out, it could have opened the way to a peace process on the Korean peninsula. It might also have averted three deadly clashes in the West Sea in 2009-10.

The promise of October 2007 soon evaporated. The past two years have been trying ones, the most dangerous on the Korean Peninsula since 1994 or 1968. I want to talk about how we got here and how we can get out.

A useful starting point is a reporting cable sent on January 29, 2009 by the U.S. embassy in Seoul disclosed by WikiLeaks: “Our Blue House contacts have told us on several occasions that President Lee remained quite comfortable with his North Korea policy and that he is prepared leave the inter-Korean relations frozen until the end of his term in office, if necessary. It is also our assessment that Lee´s more conservative advisors and supporters see the current standoff as a genuine opportunity to push and further weaken the North, even if this might involve considerable brinkmanship.”

That is U.S. political counselor Joseph Yun warning Washington about the “tougher approach” taken by Seoul and Pyongyang’s “severe” response.

Subsequent cables show South Korean officials doing their utmost to convince Washington to follow their lead in the mistaken belief that ratcheting up the pressure would make the North Korean regime more pliable in negotiations, if not cause its collapse. The South Koreans’ recurrent refrain was that North Korea’s economy is imploding, its leadership transition is in trouble, and the regime itself is on the verge of collapse. U.S. embassy officials were skeptical of these claims, but the disinformation campaign played well with some Obama administration officials who favored a policy of “strategic patience” in the hope that pressure would work.

North Korea’s reaction to such pressure has always been counter-pressure. Moreover, U.S. disengagement has never played well in Pyongyang, which has long tried to exploit its nuclear and missile programs to convince Washington to end years of enmity and reconcile by signing a peace treaty to end the Korean War and fundamentally improving relations. And nothing was more likely to spark a crisis on the peninsula than the perception in Pyongyang that Seoul is impeding its engagement with Washington.

Lee Myung-bak’s get-tough policy first became evident on December 30, 2007 when Park Jin, head of Lee’s foreign affairs transition team announced that the new government would not implement the October 2007 summit agreement, and specifically the provision on the West Sea. Seoul also sided with Tokyo in unraveling an October 2007 six-party agreement. Under that accord the United States was obliged to delist the North as a state sponsor of terrorism and end sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act. On June 18, 2007, the White House announced it intended to do so – but only if Pyongyang agreed to cooperate in verifying its nuclear declaration. Washington was moving the goalposts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged on June 18: “What we’ve done, in a sense, is move up issues that were to be taken up in phase three, like verification, like access to the reactor, into phase two.”

In talks with the United States in early October 2008, the North Korea agreed to allow access to Yongbyon that could have sufficed to ascertain how much plutonium it had made in the past. If not, it also agreed to “access, based on mutual consent, to undeclared sites.” That oral agreement did not satisfy Seoul and Tokyo, who insisted that it be put in writing – as if they did not believe what the North said but did believe what it put on paper. Washington went along with its allies. During the December 2008 round of six-party talks, the three – but not China or Russia – threatened to suspend shipments of promised energy aid to unless Pyongyang agreed. On his departure from the talks, DPRK negotiator Kim Gae-gwan left no doubt of North Korean retaliation for any renege on energy aid.

On entering the White House, Obama stayed this course. Consumed by the global financial meltdown and looming depression, and determined to improved relations with U.S. allies after Bush’s unilateralism, he made no move to undo the renege on energy aid or to enter into talks with North Korea. Hardliners in Seoul, worried that Obama might move to resume nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang or initiate peace talks, made common cause with Tokyo. If engagement sped up, a senior South Korean official told a reporter, Japan could help by “slamming on the brakes.”

Pyongyang opted to force the action. In late January it began assembling a rocket at Musudan-ri launch site, an effort that would take two months, giving Obama time to reconsider engagement. In public, it did its best to portray the test-launch as a peaceful attempt to put a satellite into orbit, but in private it made clear to visitors that without the promised energy aid, it would have no recourse but to strengthen its deterrent.

In April, after the Obama administration had made no move to resume talks, the North went ahead with its rocket launch. Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo promptly sought UN sanctions. Beijing initially demurred, convinced that sanctions would delay the resumption of talks, but it was not about to bear the blame in Washington for blocking UN action. It drafted a Security Council president’s statement with the United States that condemned the launch for contravening Resolution 1718 and imposed sanctions.

Spurning the UN action, the DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesman denounced six-party talks and said Pyongyang “will no longer be bound by any agreement.” That called into question its commitment in the September 2005 six-party joint statement to “abandon” its nuclear weapons and existing programs. The spokesman announced the North would also “actively examine the construction of a light-water [nuclear] plant of our own.” Such a plant required enriched uranium to fuel it. He said it would also reprocess the 6,500 spent fuel rods removed during disabling, extracting another bomb’s worth of plutonium. That would enable it to conduct its second nuclear test that May without depleting its plutonium stockpile. The test prompted further UN sanctions – and stepped-up Chinese political and economic engagement with the North.

Not content just to impede six-party talks, the Lee government in Seoul also flung down the gauntlet in its competition with the North. After backing away from the 2007 summit accord, it also backed away from a 2000 summit agreement that committed the North to abide by the Northern Limit Line until permanent borders were drawn.

The moves drew a bristling response from Pyongyang. In late March 2008, after building up its shore artillery near the disputed waters, it accused South Korean vessels of violating “its” territory and launched short-range missiles into the contested waters. It also called for a permanent peace treaty to replace the armistice agreement, a step the Lee government was loath to take.

A heated war of words erupted in 2009. On January 17, assailing the South’s defense minister “for making full preparations for the possible third West Sea skirmish,” a North Korean military spokesman warned, “[W]e will preserve … the extension of [the] MDL in the West Sea already proclaimed to the world as long as there are ceaseless intrusions into the territorial waters of our side in the West Sea.” Not to be outdone, South Korea’s defense minister told the National Assembly a month later that it “will clearly respond to any preemptive artillery or missile attack by North Korea” in the contested waters. The unfortunate message to navy officers on both sides was, shoot first and ask questions later.

In August 2009 Pyongyang reached out to re-engage with Seoul and Washington. Intent on releasing two American journalists who had strayed across the border from China, Kim Jong Il invited former President Bill Clinton to meet him on August 4, when he renewed an invitation for U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth to come to Pyongyang for talks. He also sent two top officials dealing with North-South relations to Seoul for Kim Dae-jung’s funeral. They delivered a personal invitation to President Lee for a third North-South summit meeting, but Lee, mistaking the gesture as a sign of weakness, spurned the invitation.

On September 3 the DPRK’s permanent representative to the United Nations informed the Security Council president by letter that Pyongyang’s “experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase,” a sign it was operating a plant to enrich uranium. Pyongyang was saying it was ready for “dialogue” – or else.

Washington delayed Bosworth’s trip until December. Without a commitment from Seoul to resume shipments of energy aid, he had nothing to offer except long-standing U.S. positions on the need to resume six-party talks and denuclearization in return for an improvement in relations.

With little to show for his efforts to re-engage, Kim Jong Il turned up the heat. On October 15 the North Korean navy accused the South of sending 16 warships into the disputed waters, according to a report by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency, which said, “The reckless military provocations by warships of the South Korean navy have created such a serious situation that a naval clash may break out between the two sides in these waters.”

Shortly thereafter just such a clash took place. On November 9, a North Korean patrol boat crossed the NLL into the contested waters – precisely what the 2007 summit had sought to forestall – and a South Korean vessel fired warning shots at it. The North returned fire and the South opened up, severely damaging the North Korean vessel and causing an unknown number of casualties. On November 12, after Pyongyang’s demand for an apology went unanswered, North Korea’s party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, spoke of avenging the attack: “The South Korean forces will be forced to pay dearly for the grave armed provocation perpetrated by them in the waters of the north side in the West Sea of Korea.” Five days later, according to North Korean accounts, Kim Jong Il went to a naval base with his high command and ordered the training of a “do-or-die unit of sea heroes.” That order was carried out on March 26 with the attack on the Cheonan, an attack for which Pyongyang has since denied responsibility.

After the Cheonan, the right wing in Seoul was more determined than ever to show Pyongyang who is boss in Korea. They wanted Washington to send an aircraft carrier to the disputed waters of the West Sea and to join in live fire exercises there, but the U.S. military wanted to damp down, not escalate the crisis and refused. Pyongyang warned Seoul not to go ahead, then responded with a deadly artillery attack on Yeongpyeong Island. Having taught Seoul a second lesson, Pyongyang then invited it to resume talks.

At the same time it also revealed a new missile and its enrichment facility at Yongbyon, thereby demonstrating the ineffectiveness of sanctions and the Proliferation Security Initiative on its missile and nuclear efforts. What North Korea has yet to do is restart its Yongbyon reactor to generate more plutonium-laden spent fuel, to enrich substantial quantities of uranium, or to conduct additional missile and nuclear tests it needs to develop both a deliverable warhead deliverable and reliable missiles. Efforts to induce North Korea not to take these steps should be a matter of some urgency.

Instead, many in Seoul want Washington to pick a fight with Beijing over North Korea. Yet, as Hu’s state visit to Washington showed, cooler heads in the Obama administration understand that continued cooperation with China is the key to security and prosperity in Northeast Asia and the world. Even some conservatives in Seoul understand the need to resume economic engagement with the North or risk losing influence there to China.

Both Washington and Seoul will need to take sustained actions to engage and negotiate with Pyongyang if they are to stop and reverse its nuclear programs and prevent more Cheonans.

What does Pyongyang see in engagement? Kim Jong Il has promised “a radical turn in his people’s standard of living” and a “strong and prosperous country” by 2012, the centenary of his father’s birth. He needs foreign capital for his economy to grow and he does not want to be wholly dependent on China for it. If he wants to meet those goals, he knows he will need to move to denuclearize. Moreover, he may not yet have given up trying to improve his security by convincing Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo to end enmity and normalize relations. He will not yield his nuclear programs without a sustained process of reconciliation.

However reluctantly, the Obama administration is now inching back to the negotiating table. Talks might work but only if Washington and Seoul are committed to sustained political and economic engagement and a peace process in Korea. That remains to be seen.

Dr. Sigal’s speech was made at the Korean-American National Coordinating Council’s Annual Gathering in Chicago January 29, 2011.

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