Obama must leave door open to N. Korea

U.S. President Barack Obama is facing a stern diplomacy test over North Korea's actions.
There’s an old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Although President Barack Obama and other world leaders could be forgiven for feeling that North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il is deliberately driving them insane, that adage is worth keeping in mind amid the calls for U.N. Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang over its recent rocket test. Virtually every angry editorial, opinion column or government statement condemning the launch and urging tough new sanctions has grudgingly acknowledged that — however satisfying such a step would be — it almost certainly won’t work. Not only have the Chinese and Russians — key neighbors and trading partners of North Korea — made clear their opposition to sanctions, but history shows that pressure and coercion aimed at punishing the North or changing its behavior have usually had the opposite effect. A few examples: — A Bush administration move in November 2002 to halt promised shipments of heavy fuel oil in retaliation for Pyongyang’s alleged secret program to build a uranium-based nuclear bomb led not to the North abandoning its uranium effort, but to a decision to restart the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, where operations had been frozen for eight years. — After the U.S. Treasury Department targeted North Korean accounts in a bank in the former Portuguese territory of Macau in September 2005, and Washington rejected the North’s appeals to resolve the issue and hold a bilateral meeting with U.S. envoy Christopher Hill, Pyongyang test-fired seven missiles in July 2006. — And following the strongly worded condemnation of those missile tests by the U.N. Security Council, the North Koreans ignored warnings not only from Washington but even from their friends in Beijing and staged a nuclear test in October of that year.

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There is no evidence to suggest that “punishing” North Korea with tougher sanctions this time will produce a result any different from past attempts at pressure, especially because the threat or use of force — which would raise the prospect of a new Korean war when Washington is preoccupied with Afghanistan, Iraq and the financial crisis — is clearly not an option. Moreover, the North has signaled that it will retaliate sharply for any U.N. sanctions move. One likely step could be the reprocessing of spent fuel rods removed from the Yongbyon reactor as part of the process of disabling the facility that began in 2007. That could give Pyongyang enough weapons-grade plutonium to add another bomb to its arsenal. Despite its strong condemnation of the April 5 rocket launch and public support for action at the United Nations, the Obama administration appears to understand that sanctions alone are a dead end. In a revealing meeting with reporters the day before the test, the new U.S. envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, went out of his way to downplay talk of coercion. Instead, he repeatedly signaled a desire to resume negotiations with Pyongyang. “We … believe strongly that everyone has a long-term interest. Regardless of this short-term problem, everyone has a long-term interest in getting back to the negotiations in the six-party process as expeditiously as possible,” he said. He added, “We will continue to have bilateral contacts with the North Koreans. And we are prepared to open that channel at any point.” In the current heated climate — especially given the hardline positions toward the North adopted by key U.S. allies Japan and South Korea — it is likely to be weeks or months before those contacts resume, let alone offer the possibility of producing any meaningful progress. In the meantime, the challenge in what many commentators have described as Obama’s first major foreign policy test is not just to prove how tough he can be, but to show that he has the will and political skill to keep open the possibility of negotiating with North Korea in spite of Kim’s provocations. — Mike Chinoy is the Edgerton Senior Fellow on Asia at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles. Information on his book “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis,” can be found at www.pacificcouncil.org