This calculation explains why the Obama administration is hinting of bilateral talks with Pyongyang in coming days.
North Korea has declared it will become a fully activated nuclear weapons state next year, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of its late founder, Kim Il-sung. It may test a sizable nuclear weapon, one that may be more threatening than two previous tests and that could upset the power balance in Northeast Asia.
Another worry is that the regime of Kim Jong-il might again attack South Korea. Two incidents last year left 50 South Koreans dead. Such a repeat provocation would probably bring strong retaliation by Seoul, forcing the United States and China to square off over the divided Korean Peninsula.
As Sen. John Kerry (D), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said recently: “Make no mistake: Given North Korea’s recent irresponsible conduct, staying in a diplomatic holding pattern invites a dangerous situation to get even worse.”
One hint that Mr. Obama is moving toward talks came this week. The Pentagon said it will reopen negotiations with North Korea on a humanitarian issue: recovering the remains of an estimated 5,500 US service members left unaccounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War. That effort was put on hold by the US in 2005.
Last July, diplomats from the US and North Korea did talk briefly at the United Nations last July. The American side insisted that the North suspend its nuclear program, allow in international nuclear inspectors, and improve ties with South Korea before full-scale talks begin. It’s unclear how much Obama will stick to those “presteps.”
The last two American presidents went to the mat with North Korea to come up with deals, only to see them collapse after Pyongyang reneged or engaged in belligerent acts.
Obama is right to be cautious, setting conditions for resuming negotiations. But doing so also risks more provocation from North Korea, which lashes out when it feels ignored and has used its nuclear program to extract concessions, such as oil and money.
The president not only needs a quiet North Korea in 2012, but one that may also help him show progress on one of his global priorities, nuclear nonproliferation.
North Korea has violated most world norms in its drive to build atomic weapons and test ballistic missiles. Leaving it alone only encourages Iran and other states to follow suit.
At best, Obama may hope that China will force its wily neighbor to the table in order to avoid trouble next year. With Beijing in a leadership transition, however, it’s not clear if it will muscle Mr. Kim to make concessions.
If China plays along, perhaps Obama can also find a way to talk seriously with North Korea, while avoiding a repeat of past failed agreements.