At a pizza luncheon last Thursday in McGhee Library, School of Foreign Service Dean Robert Gallucci made reference to “the loud slap on the head heard around the world as [President George W. Bush] realized his North Korean mistake” – the mistake being Bush’s refusal to meaningfully engage with North Korea for the greater part of his term of office. Gallucci is an authority on the issue: He served as chief negotiator when the United States pressed North Korea to limit its nuclear ambitions in 1994.
The Bush administration changed its tune in 2007 by sending former Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill to meet secretly with Ri Gun, North Korea’s deputy nuclear negotiator. The move was risky; it was only immediately before Hill’s departure from Tokyo that Japan and South Korea were informed of the endeavor.
As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth begin to scrutinize the Korean peninsula, they should keep several lessons from Gallucci and Hill’s efforts in mind. After all, U.S. engagement in face-to-face diplomacy seems to have borne fruit in the past. After Hill’s visit, a deal was struck whereby North Korea would shut down Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center and provide a full account of its stockpile of plutonium. Clinton and Bosworth should continue to ameliorate relations with North Korea while also maintaining a tough stance against the country’s development of nuclear weapons.
Further progress was made when the New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang last year. Lorin Maazel, who directed the Philharmonic, explained his choice of music to The New Yorker: “`An American in Paris’ is about the curiosity Americans have to go to foreign countries. I’m going to say from the stage . that someday someone will write a piece of music entitled `Americans in Pyongyang.'”
This was a refreshing detour from typical U.S. diplomacy: Instead of dispatching a tactician charged with advancing American interests, we sent a prized emblem of our culture, demonstrating a desire to engage and begin to understand North Korean society.
One might argue that currying favor in this manner is even shrewder than sending a top diplomat. And while it certainly is true that America benefits from eschewing Machiavellian tactics (better they fear us than love us), the benefit is mutual. The North Koreans enjoyed a concert; the country was removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism; and some severe export controls and restrictions on foreign aid to North Korea – some of which resulted from that classification – were lifted.
Showing respect for North Korea is more likely to foster a successful diplomatic relationship. In a world of carrots and sticks, no one needs reminding that America has plenty of sticks. A short, sharp snap at the heel of a misbehaving state may be warranted at times, but grand, ominous threats are unnecessary and counterproductive. That the United States is so strong is a diplomatic weakness of sorts; the world is well aware of the fact that nothing can really force the United States to honor agreements. Saber rattling, as we have seen time and time again, almost always impedes American diplomatic efforts.
In response to Secretary Clinton publicly raising doubts about North Korea’s political stability, Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation said, “Asia is all about face. What she’s done is to create a huge face problem for the North Korean government.” Indeed, Clinton may have made it more difficult to maintain the balancing act the North Koreans play: The regime must cooperate with Special Representative Stephen Bosworth without surrendering its spirit of “Juche” (national self-reliance and independence).
It’s important to remember, however, that the United States cannot be overly soft with North Korea – especially after North Korea declared all peace agreements with its southern neighbor void in January. Three things must be avoided: We cannot embarrass the government – that would force it into a nuclearized corner. We cannot act unilaterally – that would alienate China. And we cannot acquiesce – that would endanger Japanese and South Korean interests.
The task facing Bosworth is daunting, but not impossible. It is most important to ensure nuclear security at all costs. The horror of a sliver of Pyongyang plutonium appearing in an Iranian improvised explosive device set off in Baghdad, Kabul, London, Tel Aviv or Washington must be averted.
Udayan Tripathi is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at tripathithehoya.com. History Never Repeats Itself appears every other Friday.
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