Looking For A Legacy

There was a time when President George W. Bush couldn't pass up an opportunity to blast North Korea. After 9/11 he labeled it a member of the "Axis of Evil," and later said he "loathed" Kim Jong Il. Yet in last month's State of the Union, he didn't even mention the renegade state. True, North Korea has modified its behavior somewhat of late, engaging South Korea in symbolic gestures of reconciliation like opening a rail link. But the real reason for Bush's shift probably lies elsewhere: time is running out on his presidency, and with quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan and the failure to deliver an Arab-Israeli peace deal, his administration is desperate for a foreign-policy triumph. Thus it is scrambling for a deal with Pyongyang that would dismantle North Korea's nuclear program in exchange for its removal from the State Departments' list of terrorist states.

To keep things on track, the United States has rewarded even the smallest baby steps by North Korea, most recently by sending the New York Philharmonic to visit. Washington even overlooked instances of backsliding, such as Kim's alleged transfer of nuclear technology to Syria. The administration hopes a breakthrough will lead to a regional accord, including a peace treaty between North and South Korea. To sweeten the pot, Washington offered Pyongyang normalized relations if it cooperates in verifiably abandoning its nukes.

Supporters of the administration say the approach has already borne fruit. Last fall, Pyongyang began the process of disabling its main reactor at Yongbyon, going far beyond the commitment it made in 1994 merely to freeze the program. Bush backers also point out that getting the world's most secretive state to admit to possessing 30 kilograms of fissile material—as it also did last fall—represents progress and is reason enough to keep talking, even though U.S. intelligence officials suspect North Korea actually has nearly twice that much.

But the administration's dovishness is causing splits in the conservative Washington firmament, leading some hawks to attack the president's policies. Hard-liners think it is a mistake to deal with North Korea till there's proof Pyongyang is nuke-free and ready to reform its authoritarian ways. Last month, at a speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Bush's own special envoy for human rights in North Korea, Jay Lefkowitz, cast doubt on the administration's approach, condemning North Korea for continuing to counterfeit dollars, smuggle drugs and sell nuclear technology to hostile countries. Though Lefkowitz stopped short of criticizing Bush directly, his inference was clear: the White House doesn't take Pyongyang's human-rights abuses seriously enough and is naive to think it can do business with Kim.

Lefkowitz was stiffly rebuked by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but the North Koreans haven't made things any easier. They partially disabled the reactor at Yongbyon, but recently missed deadlines for dismantling it altogether, providing a detailed report of refining activity and for declaring whether North Korea had shared technology with others. A meeting in Beijing last week between senior U.S. diplomat Christopher Hill and Kim Kye Gwan, Hill's opposite number from Pyongyang, produced little more than commitments for more talks. The December election of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, a conservative wary of Pyongyang, may have put North Korea in an even less conciliatory mood.

Still, the Bush administration hasn't given up. In a scheduled visit to Asia this week, Rice plans to smooth things over. The administration is also hoping China will convince North Korea it will be easier to cooperate with Bush than wait for his successor—possibly a hawkish John McCain. But Beijing, angered by a U.S. attempt to shoot down a defunct spy satellite last week, may not be inclined to do any favors, and might even prefer to perpetuate the dialogue than resolve it. After all, an embargoed North Korea dependent on China for basic goods and services is easier to control than one with open relations with the world. John Park, a Korea expert at the United States Institute of Peace, argues that even short of a deal, it's crucial that negotiations continue. "The North Koreans are being asked to give up their [nuclear] capabilities, and they can't take them back later on. That's a lot to ask, and it's important to keep the momentum going." Even if it means ignoring eight years of angry rhetoric.