Jimmy Carter in Pyongyang

Back to the same old North Korean games.

The first time Jimmy Carter travelled to North Korea, in 1994 to negotiate a nuclear deal, we wrote that “every demarche from Pyongyang will be entertained by other governments in light of the fear that North Korea wields a nuclear threat.” Fast forward 16 years to the second Carter visit, and we may be at the beginning of another such cycle.

Mr. Carter and Obama Administration officials were quick to call last week’s trip to rescue 31-year-old Aijalon Gomes, a prisoner of the North Korean regime since January, a “private” humanitarian visit. The U.S. had legitimate concerns about his health, given the North’s infamous prisons.

But Mr. Carter wouldn’t have been able to travel to North Korea without official permission, and he stuck around for an extra day in the hopes of seeing Kim Jong Il, who was travelling in China with his third son, his presumed heir. Kim snubbed Mr. Carter, yet his number two told the former President the North wants to resume the six-party talks. China’s nuclear envoy carried the same message to Seoul, and U.S. doves like former State Department official Joel Wit echoed that call in the New York Times.

Aijalon Gomes and former President Jimmy Carter

This sudden outbreak of diplomatic fervor isn’t a coincidence; the North and its allies are good at preaching the virtues of negotiation when Pyongyang is at its most vulnerable. The Clinton Administration was preparing sanctions on the North when Mr. Carter negotiated what became the 1994 Agreed Framework. In that deal, the U.S. gave the North financing for two light-water nuclear reactors, security guarantees and energy. In return, Pyongyang continued its nuclear weapons program.

In 2006, when Bush Administration financial sanctions started to bite, North Korea tested a nuclear device, and the U.S. again caved, agreeing to return the dirty money in exchange for more talks. In return, Pyongyang continued its nuclear weapons program. See a pattern here?

Returning to the six-party talks now would again reward bad behavior. Unlike the U.S., the North has shown no willingness to keep its promises. Since talks stalled the North has conducted another nuclear test; launched missiles near Japan; sunk a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors; seized political prisoners; expropriated South Korean assets and threatened a nuclear attack.

This is a sign of vulnerability, not strength. On the economic front, a botched currency reform last year created hyperinflation and resulted in rare public protests. Floods this month have devastated agriculture. On the political front, Kim is reportedly getting ready to transfer power to his son at next month’s rare party conference, even though Kim Jong Eun is seen as young, inexperienced and possibly unable to control the military.

All of this raises questions about what diplomacy might achieve. The six-party talks benefit the North by giving Pyongyang global legitimacy and a sanctions reprieve, and they benefit China by giving Beijing free diplomatic leverage in a process in which it is the North’s main enabler. Do the U.S. and its allies really want another Agreed Framework?

Rather than entertain fantasies about the North’s intentions, the better strategy is to keep the sanctions pressure on with the goal of hastening the regime’s demise and, as South Korea is already doing, preparing for the collapse.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703669004575458422510924854.html