Opinion

Should Obama sign a peace treaty with North Korea?

It's too late to rid the country of nukes, but we can keep its program under control.

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A rare opportunity has emerged for the United States and North Korea to directly engage in diplomatic dialogue. The Obama administration should quickly and firmly grab it.

North Korea's Foreign Ministry issued a statement Monday saying that "there is a specific and reserved form of dialogue" with the US that can address the nuclear situation.

The statement followed remarks over the weekend by Sin Son-ho, North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, who said his government was "not against a dialogue" with Washington. These statements are apparently in response to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's call for North Korea to return to the negotiating table.

Secretary Clinton said last week in Thailand that if North Korea agrees to irreversible de-nuclearization, the US will move forward on a package of incentives, including normalizing relations with Pyongyang. Clinton later said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that North Korea won't be "rewarded for half-measures" toward ending its nuclear weapons program.

The willingness on both sides to resume talks is encouraging, but there are major hurdles ahead.

Frankly, it is unrealistic for the US to ask North Korea to give up its nuclear technology. The reason is simple: The nuclear card is the only one North Korea has; it will not easily give it away. The ostrich policy of refusing to accept North Korea as a nuclear state has to be ditched. A solution to the North Korea conundrum must begin with recognizing the fact that North Korea has the ability to produce nuclear weapons and will remain nuclear-capable.

The cold war has not ended on the Korean Peninsula. Regime survival is a top priority for Pyongyang. Depicted as being belligerent and menacing to its neighbors and the US, North Korea retorts that it is the US that has been hostile and provocative.

The impoverished North needs the nuclear program as a bargaining chip. It is also in dire need of energy, which nuclear technology can provide. It is highly unlikely that Pyongyang will actually use nuclear weapons against its neighbors or the US – the Communist leaders are fully aware that it would be suicidal.

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton took a soft-line policy toward North Korea. He promised millions of dollars in aid, food, oil, and even two nuclear reactors in exchange for denuclearization. President Clinton also sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong-il.

But Congress never approved the budget for the construction of the two nuclear reactors, there was evidence that North Korea was violating its end of the bargain, and Clinton left office, unable to solve the problem.

Then George W. Bush put North Korea on the "axis of evil" list and took a hard-line approach, which also backfired. More sanctions will not affect the lives of North Korean rulers and will only cause more suffering for the common people. Heated rhetoric does not help solve the problem, either.

But that doesn't mean there's no way forward.

Kim Jong-il is now apparently picking his successor. Kim Jong-un, his youngest and favored son, has been rumored to be the next leader of North Korea. If this is true, there might be some hope for North Korea.

The younger Kim was educated in the International School of Berne in Switzerland. He is reported to have been introverted but friendly to his classmates. Unlike his father and grandfather, he has first-hand experience in a Western society.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility that Kim Jong-un may introduce political and economic reforms to North Korea after he consolidates his power.

Consider China: Mao Zedong, who only spent a few months in Moscow and never ventured to the West, kept China in isolation and constant conflict with foreign powers while Deng Xiaoping, who studied and lived in France as a teenager, brought sea changes to post-Mao China.

When Deng emerged as China's leader after the Cultural Revolution, the US and other Western countries welcomed him. President Jimmy Carter invited him to Washington and praised his bold economic reform initiatives.

Nearly two decades after Russia and China established diplomatic relations with South Korea, neither the US nor Japan has taken steps to recognize North Korea. Why doesn't President Obama reach out to Kim Jong-un and establish a working relationship with him as early as possible?

North Korea is predictably unpredictable, but one thing is clear now: It is determined to keep nuclear technology and strengthen its nuclear weapons. Yet, what North Korea needs most is not the two light water reactors promised to it under the collapsed 1994 Agreed Framework; it needs security guarantees and diplomatic recognition.

Acquiring nuclear technology does not make North Korea more dangerous; it is how the regime uses this technology that matters. Since North Korea is already nuclear-capable, the US should keep this traditional enemy close by signing a nuclear cooperation deal with it and co-managing its nuclear program. Both South Korea and China are also supportive of a less confrontational approach to North Korea.

Ultimately, the US-North Korea dialogue should aim at establishing diplomatic relations and signing a peace treaty, which may be the best way to keep North Korea's nuclear program and technology under control.

Zhiqun Zhu is an associate professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. He is also the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur chair in East Asian Politics at Bucknell.

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