When South Korean Navy ships exchanged shots with intruding North Korean patrol boats June 15, sending one to the bottom, it was a graphic reminder of how dangerous the five-decade standoff there remains. Yet the skirmish was tame compared with the catastrophe that would result from a full-fledged war.
The latest skirmish should not distract attention from another development that could be far more important in the long run. On a visit to Pyongyang early this month, former Secretary of Defense William Perry opened a new door to diplomacy by proposing steps both the US and North Korea could take to reduce the North Korean threat to peace in northeastern Asia.
The contents are still secret, but reports suggest that Perry proposed expanded economic interaction in exchange for concrete steps by North Korea to demonstrate its commitment to the nuclear agreement, to backing off on its ballistic missile program, and to reducing tensions along the demilitarized zone. Perry also invited the North to send a senior representative to the US to respond to his proposal.
It is unlikely that North Korea will suddenly change its ways. The Stalinist regime in Pyongyang survived for five decades only by maintaining a belligerent stance toward the outside world. The leaders around Kim Jong Il know that joining the global economy could lead to the collapse of their regime.
Yet there are signs Pyongyang might be ready to approach a policy of opening and engagement. It has not rejected Perry's proposal, for one. The North Korean media presented Perry's visit as an important diplomatic event, legitimizing it at home and abroad. The North also allowed US inspectors to look at an underground facility before the visit,signaling their cooperative intentions even if not resolving the possibility of other hidden nuclear facilities.
Furthermore, Pyongyang began preliminary talks with the South on June 22 about issues ranging from reunification of divided families to a series of investment deals with South Korean companies. While the North is trying to limit these contacts so it can receive cash without exposing the population to South Korean or other outside influences, a wedge is being established that might be used to pry open the regime and reduce the peninsula's confrontation.
The odds of transforming the regime in the North are long, to be sure; but as long as the US, Japan, and South Korea maintain a robust deterrent, it is worth testing the possibility. Dealing with the North in this way requires a steady hand and a long-term view. The problem is that the White House now faces a "Catch-22" in its North Korea policy.
Congress is demanding a long-term strategy to reduce the North Korean threat. Most North Korea watchers likely would argue this will require unilateral steps to lift economic sanctions on the North so that Pyongyang can begin to see the potential benefits from reduced confrontation. However, Congress is still so mistrustful of administration policy that many members are demanding results in threat reduction before they will support any changes in US sanctions policy. This makes the political task before the administration tough, but far from impossible.
A bipartisan independent task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations agreed in a report last summer that stability on the peninsula will only come with a combination of strong defense preparedness - including robust response to any military provocations - coupled with active steps to end the isolation of the North Korean regime.
The task force recommended that the president use his constitutional authority to lift some sanctions on the North to pave the way for a larger deal to reduce the dangers of war. Congress could be brought along with such a policy if convinced the administration is serious about forming a long-term policy to reduce the North Korean threat. Perry's proposal began to build that case; now the administration must follow through.
*Michael J. Green is Olin Fellow for Asian Security at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.