In 2001, Kang, by then a reporter for a leading conservative South Korean newspaper, published a memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag. The book received little international attention until last April, when President Bush read the memoir on the recommendation of Henry Kissinger. Evidently moved by Kang’s account, Bush asked his senior aides to read it as well. In June, Kang was invited to the White House to meet with the president, Vice President Cheney, and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. As Kang told The New York Times afterwards, “[President Bush] was more interested in the pains North Koreans are going through, more so than I had previously thought…. He kept on repeating how deeply sorry he was about the situation. To hear a president say these deep things made me feel that he cared.” A calm and affable man, Kang, now 37, has been asked to speak about his experiences at Freedom House, a conservative human rights organization, and at an evangelical concert in Midland, Texas, devoted to aiding the plight of North Koreans. The conservative push has not only accelerated sales of Kang’s book, but has also raised the profile of the issue of North Korean human rights among Americans.

In many regards, Bush’s promotion of Kang’s book shows the president at his best–using the bully pulpit to call evil by its name. Yet decrying North Korea’s oppressive regime is not the same as actively working to effect change. Two decades ago, President Reagan stood among 20,000 Berliners and called on Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Less than four months later, Reagan and Gorbachev sat together at the negotiating table and signed a deal to reduce nuclear armaments. Things worked out pretty well from there.

But instead of following Reagan’s example and showing an eagerness to both engage and confront North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Bush has stubbornly prevented any direct dealings between the American and North Korean governments. Instead, the president continues to insist on arms-length multiparty talks to curb the North’s nuclear weapons program–talks that have yielded no progress–apparently under the belief that to negotiate with a tyrant is to appease him.

In June, Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun appeared together in Washington to show a united political front. But the truth is that the two leaders could hardly be more different in their approaches and philosophies. Roh allows his government to work directly with Pyongyang on a range of issues, yet refuses to criticize the North’s horrendous human rights record. The South Korean government’s belief is nearly the opposite of the Bush administration’s: To negotiate with a tyrant, Roh seems to think, you must appease him.

Neither approach makes much sense, and neither has achieved any progress. As Reagan and other presidents have shown, it’s perfectly possible to negotiate with a brutal regime while publicly condemning its human rights record. Indeed, it’s the best and perhaps only way to move forward. The sooner Washington and Seoul learn that lesson, the better.

Kim Jong Il is no Gorbachev. But Bush’s refusal to engage with Kim and his government is precisely what kept the United States from heading off the nuclear crisis in which we now find ourselves. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, former ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg and Johns Hopkins scholar and journalist Don Oberdorfer revealed that, during a trip they took to North Korea in the fall of 2002, they were given a written personal message from Kim to pass along to Bush. In the note, Kim opened the door to settling the standoff then underway over North Korea’s threat to take possession of some spent nuclear fuel rods that it could turn into fuel for nuclear weapons:

Though clearly distracted by the approaching invasion of Iraq, President Bush was also influenced by hard-line advisers such as Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton. According to their doctrine, any effort to work with a totalitarian regime will simply perpetuate its rule. The only moral goal is regime change, and the only way to achieve that is by isolating and confronting the communist government. As a result, hawks within the administration since 2003 have succeeded in quashing numerous attempts by senior State Department officials to coax Pyongyang back to the negotiating table through back-channel talks with North Korean representatives to the United Nations. Yet so far, the administration’s stiff-arm strategy has sparked no regime change in Pyongyang. Instead, North Korea is better armed and more dangerous than ever it was before.

While the Bush administration has tended to equate engagement with appeasement, South Korea’s government has erred in the opposite direction. Afraid that any overt criticism of the North could jeopardize the possibility of resuming negotiations, Seoul has become tight-lipped about their neighbor’s human rights abuses and tried to intimidate activists into doing likewise.

After more than four decades of conservative, authoritarian governments, Seoul began to reconcile with the North in 1993 when voters chose a moderate, Kim Young Sam, to be the first elected civilian president of South Korea. In 1998, his successor, the former dissident Kim Dae Jung, set out to implement his “Sunshine Policy” of reconciliation through various exchanges and economic cooperation. Since his inauguration in 2003, President Roh Moo Hyun has further extended Kim Dae Jung’s liberal legacy.

South Korea has moved leftward politically as its economy has grown dramatically, and the two trends have reinforced each other. The country has much more to lose from a conflict with the North than it once had. It has plenty of extra revenues to aid the North, and sees that aid as a way to ease the absorption of North Korea’s backwards economy if and when the two countries reunify. Moreover, South Koreans believe that decades of aggressive containment produced only more tension with and terrorism from Pyongyang in the past, so why not try to deal with them?

Yet, as the pendulum has swung dramatically from right to left in South Korea, the government has gone from productive engagement to unabashed appeasement. Out of fear of provoking the highly volatile North Korean leadership, President Roh, ironically a former human rights and labor lawyer, has avoided all public criticisms of the North Korean government and its atrocious treatment of its people. Moreover, the government has done virtually nothing to try to bring back the 486 citizens kidnapped over the years by North Korea. For three consecutive years, Seoul has even abstained from voting on U.N. human rights resolutions criticizing North Korea, explaining that this might hinder progress toward talks on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program.

While South Korea’s independent media run reports critical of the Pyongyang regime, the state-run KBS television networks virtually stopped showing inflammatory footage of North Korea from 2000. Defectors critical of the North have not been allowed on state-run television programs. While Seoul currently directs generous funding to groups that are trying to engage with the North through economic and cultural cooperation, it gives very little money to North Korean human rights groups.

Since about 2000, the South Korean government has also monitored and occasionally interfered with anti-North Korean human rights activists. For instance, last summer, Pastor Song Bu-Keun, a well-known South Korean human rights activist, was planning a trip to Athens, Greece, to protest against the Chinese and North Korean governments outside Olympic venues. Shortly before his scheduled departure, Song’s colleague received a phone call from a South Korean official who asked whether the pastor really needed to go all the way to Greece to make his statement. Song went in spite of the government’s opposition, but when in Athens, Song says, an operative of the Republic of Korea’s powerful National Intelligence Service (NIS) kept tabs on his activities.

In some cases, the government has done more than merely watch activists. In fall 2004, Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor in South Korea who has been aggressively denouncing North Korea’s human rights abuses, received a phone call from the German Embassy in Seoul. The Korean government wanted the embassy to relay the message that “he might, in the future, overstep the limits of tolerance,” as the German Ambassador Michael Geier told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. In 2003, South Korean riot police stopped human rights activists’ attempt to send 600 radios by balloons to North Korea to spark dissent there.

In at least a few instances, the South Korean government has made it difficult for prominent critics of North Korea to obtain passports. Hwang Jang-Yop, the architect of North Korea’s juche or self-reliance ideology, and his aide Kim Duk-Hong defected from the North to South Korea in 1997. The NIS denied Hwang a passport for years before finally cutting a deal: He was granted a passport, but he had to promise not to be critical of the North while in the United States. The less compromising Kim has still not been allowed to travel overseas. Seoul’s reason for quieting the refugee’s criticism of North Korea, according to Yoon Young-Kwan, a former South Korean foreign minister, is that “the Korean government is worried that if you go to the United States and you criticize North Korean continuously, this might have a negative impact on the six-party talk process.”

South Korea has even buckled under North Korean criticism of its efforts to aid defectors. Last year, several hundred North Korean defectors came to South Korea via Vietnam after Seoul secretly sent two charter flights to airlift them out of Ho Chi Minh City. But when North Korea accused Seoul of kidnapping its citizens, South Korean officials publicly announced that no such further support for defectors would be permitted. In January, South Korea cut the settlement lump-sum money given to each North Korean refugee from $30,000 to $10,000 and is tightening up its defector screening process–a measure critics claim shows an intent to slow the flow of defectors. This, too, seems to be done in order to placate Pyongyang. North Korea has long worried that escapees could pose a danger to its juche system.

Seoul’s actions may be craven, but they’re not completely illogical. Washington’s belligerent posture has repeatedly threatened to break the slender threads that tie the North Korean regime to the outside world. The South Koreans feel that they have to overcompensate by being extra nice.

But if South Korea’s desire to appease North Korea is understandable, it is also unwise–just as the Bush administration’s wish to have no direct relations with such an odious regime is understandable but unwise. There is a smarter strategy, and you don’t have to go back to Reagan to find it.

The last time North Korea’s nuclear weapons program had the world on edge was in 1993 and 1994. At that time, the Clinton administration vigorously pursued diplomatic negotiations but also warned Pyongyang that clear steps toward building nuclear weapons would be met with quick and severe repercussions. (Clinton had a contingency plan to bomb North Korea’s nuclear reactors if negotiations failed.) Clinton allowed Jimmy Carter to serve as an “unofficial” envoy to diffuse tensions and jump-start negotiations by meeting personally with North Korea’s then-Great Leader Kim Il Sung. The White House then ultimately consulted with South Korean President Kim Young Sam to ensure that the two democratic allies were working collaboratively to contain nuclear arms on the Korean peninsula (Seoul was then more hawkish than Washington on Pyongyang). Although the diplomatic process was anything but smooth, the North Koreans responded rationally and signed an agreement under which their plutonium was put under international lock and key.

And there it stayed until the Bush administration received intelligence reports that the regime may have been trying to enrich uranium, a much slower route to creating nuclear weapons fuel than processing plutonium. When administration officials confronted Pyongyang about its uranium program in the fall of 2002, the totalitarian regime kicked out the international weapons inspectors, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, and restarted its plutonium-based nuclear development program. Finally, in February this year, North Korea officially announced that it possessed nuclear weapons.

If there is any hope of getting out of the current mess, it is for George W. Bush and Roh Moo Hyun to abandon their foolhardy strategies and meet somewhere in the middle. Bill Clinton and Kim Young Sam showed that it’s both possible and productive to be tough with the North Koreans while still negotiating with them. Bush and Roh should do likewise. South Korea should neither suppress critics of North Korea nor apologize to the North when Seoul has done nothing wrong. If the North walks away from inter-Korea talks, let them walk away. Desperately poor, Pyongyang needs Seoul more than the other way around. While South Korea has told Kim Jong Il not to test a bomb, it should spell out that if he does, Seoul will stop all economic aid and other exchanges and will take matters to the United Nations for sanctions.

Bush, for his part, needs to match his concern about North Korean human rights with a plan for action. An opportunity arose in June when, after months of stalemate, Kim Jong Il indicated that he is ready to return to the table, provided the United States demonstrates serious interest in pursuing engagement. The administration should respond by dispatching a high-level emissary to Pyongyang to play the role of a Jimmy Carter in defusing tensions and jump-starting negotiations. But given the administration’s history with North Korea, perhaps the world shouldn’t hold its breath.

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