WEEKEND THOUGHTS ABOUT NORTH KOREA….I’ve had a hard time getting my arms around the North Korea situation, probably for the same reason as a lot of other people: there’s precious little hard evidence about what’s really happening on the ground. So I’m just going to talk out loud here as a way of trying to organize my thoughts. Here goes:

  • I’ve argued before that we should negotiate with North Korea. A military strike is unfeasible and containment has little chance of working against a country that’s pretty well contained already, so it’s the least worst choice open to us.

  • The main arguments against negotiation are that (a) Kim Jong-il is untrustworthy and (b) we would be rewarding nuclear extortion. Those are pretty good arguments, too. Unfortunately, we live in the real world and sometimes unpalatable options are the best ones we’ve got, so we might as well drink the Kool-Aid and get down to business.

  • Since negotiation has been forced on us, we should keep in mind some of the basic rules of successful negotiation: keep your options as wide open as you can. Don’t make threats you’re not willing to back up. Don’t make public pronouncements that will be hard to take back later. Don’t confuse every negotiating concession with “showing weakness.”

  • So far, Bush has negotiated badly. Talking tough is a debatable foreign policy strategy, but it’s at least defensible if you’re willing to back it up. But since we are obviously unwilling to do so in the case of North Korea, President Bush deserves all the shit he’s getting for his “axis of evil” rhetoric. Talking tough and then having your bluff called does more harm to American credibility than a dozen stop-gap treaties do.

  • Of course, it would be nice to know just what it is that North Korea wants. For the past decade they have consistently asked for diplomatic recognition, a nonagression treaty, and a formal end to the Korean War, but there must be a lot more to it than this since ten successive presidents have failed to conclude a treaty with them. But if there is something more, I can’t figure out what it is.

  • Negotiation is bad only if you negotiate badly, and it’s appeasement only if you give up something that’s morally reprehensible. Neville Chamberlain is rightly excoriated because he caved in to Hitler and sold out Czechoslovakia, for example. But the situation in North Korea is quite different: they want diplomatic recognition from the U.S., and there’s nothing reprehensible about that. Why not give it to them?

  • David Adesnik at OxBlog says about those who call for negotiation, “Not one of them can actually bring himself to say that the US should reward the North Koreans with additional economic aid in exchange for their violation of the 1994 treaty.” Well, he’s right, it is hard to say that, but what’s the alternative? Just wait for them to collapse? It might happen in another decade or two, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to wait around that long. North Korea has the upper hand right now, and we need to deal with them. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

  • We need to get away from a knee-jerk reaction to being “extorted,” something that’s a fundamental part of all negotiation. North Korea has something we want and we have something they want. So let’s trade. North Korea is assuredly playing rough, but it’s not extortion until they threaten some kind of military assault if we refuse to give them what they want.

  • Charles Krauthammer thinks we should threaten to give nuclear weapons to Japan. Huh? Why would the North Koreans be more afraid that Japan would lob a nuke their way than the U.S.?

  • And one more thing: aside from their general insane hatred of Jimmy Carter, what’s up with the universal conservative loathing of the 1994 treaty? It was far from perfect, but if we hadn’t signed it North Korea probably would have had a dozen nuclear bombs half a decade ago. At least it slowed them down, and what’s wrong with that?

Conclusions? None, really. I think that Bush has foolishly allowed his rhetoric to paint him into more of a corner than was wise, but beyond that he’s handled the situation fairly well. North Korea precipitated the crisis, not us, and the administration’s reaction so far has been quite measured. I hope it stays that way.

UPDATE: As Sean-Paul rightly points out over at The Agonist, we should also be a little more concerned with what the South Koreans want to do. His advice: “Invite everyone to go dancing, but just be prepared to go bowling.” Read the whole post to find out what he means by that.