After nine months of nuclear and long-range missile tests, the detention of two American journalists, and a barrage of hostile rhetoric, Kim Jong Il now has the U.S. right where he has wanted it all along — ready to sit across the bargaining table, one on one.
Now comes the hard part. What, exactly, does the U.S. talk to North Korea about, and in what order?
Pyongyang has said it has no interest in ever returning to the six-party negotiations in which the U.S. enlisted South Korea, Japan, China and Russia as its negotiating partners. Pyongyang has always wanted to deal directly with Washington, as it did in 1994 when it negotiated the so-called "Agreed Framework" with the Clinton administration — the first instance in which Pyongyang agreed to stop work on its nuclear program. Kim has always wanted to deal with the biggest dog on the block, both for reasons of international prestige, as well as to marginalize its neighbors South Korea and Japan. From North Korea's perspective, Obama's willingness to sit down directly is already a diplomatic victory of sorts.
Since the U.S. started negotiating with North Korea over 15 years ago, hawks and doves within succeeding administrations have always wrangled over a central dilemma: Are the North Koreans bribeable? That is, are there sufficient economic as well as diplomatic incentives available to get the North to give up its nuclear program for good? Hawks view the notion that the U.S. can "induce" the North Koreans to abandon its nuclear program as naïve — "a tired siren song." Doves say the 1994 Agreed Framework is evidence that the `carrot' option can work.
The Obama administration is studded with people inclined to believe carrots like energy and food aid can work, in return for verifiable steps toward an eventual nuclear stand-down. But assuming the North is bribeable — and that's a huge assumption — its price for doing a deal now, as the east Asia diplomat acknowledges glumly, "will have gone way, way up."