Is North Korea Budging?

The news that North Korea may be prepared to return to talks with the United States is certainly welcome. But the pressure that U.S. negotiators are receiving from Bush administration officials—those who want a hardline against Kim Jong Il—is more than a little unsettling:

Mr. Hill, a seasoned negotiator who played a major role in the Dayton accords, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995, is looking for leeway to give North Korea incentives to return to the talks but is meeting resistance from officials who want to stand pat with Mr. Bush’s vaguely worded offer last June to improve relations once North Korea begins dismantling its nuclear facilities and allows full inspections.

Yes, yes, the point here is that Bush doesn’t want to “bribe” the North Koreans into acting good. Stand tough and all that. But really, what’s wrong with a little bribery? Take, for instance, Pakistan. The United States recently sold a bunch of F-16 fighters to the Pakistani government. What doesn’t get much press is the fact that we had originally held up the transfer of these fighters in 1990, after Pakistan violated its commitments to the United States, especially on developing its nuclear program. But now here we are, rewarding them for their bad behavior. It’s cowardly, it’s unprincipled, but it’s also reasonably smart. By bringing Pakistani President Perez Musharraf closer to us, we have, in theory, far more ability to influence Pakistan’s behavior than we did previously.

Now that’s not to say that the White House should approach North Korea just like it approached Pakistan—there are important differences here—but it’s worth noting that negotiating with hostile dictators, however loathsome it might be, isn’t always a dumb idea. Of course, as several former administration officials note in the story, a little appeasement isn’t all that’s missing here—the Bush administration hasn’t put much in the way of pressure on North Korea. But I wonder how much pressure is available here—South Korea and China, after all, are resisting any sanctions regime against North Korea, fearful of a catastrophic collapse of the government—and at some point the White House may have to realize that it’s in a much weaker position than it would prefer to be.