Special Report

Talking With the Enemy

North Korea provides a cautionary tale for those who want to talk directly with hostile regimes.

By 10.13.06

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As a war weary nation moves closer to Election Day, there is a growing debate over whether the United States can benefit from talking to its enemies rather than isolating them.

Proponents of such an approach are not limited to the radical left. This past Sunday, James Baker argued that America should be speaking directly with nations such as Iran and Syria. "I believe in talking to your enemies," Baker said, adding that, "it's not appeasement to talk to your enemies."

But the question is not whether the mere act of directly negotiating with hostile regimes is appeasement. The question is whether there is a reasonable expectation that such negotiations can achieve something. Proponents of direct negotiations may argue that there's no harm in trying, but rewarding a defiant nation with direct talks may actually encourage more undesirable behavior.

This week's decision by North Korea to detonate a nuclear weapon should be taken as a cautionary tale for why not to negotiate with rogue states, but some have reached the exact opposite conclusion. "If there's one overriding lesson from North Korea's apparent nuclear test, it's this: We need to negotiate directly even with hostile and brutal regimes," Nicholas Kristof wrote in Tuesday's New York Times.

Back in 1994, the Clinton administration, with the aid of Jimmy Carter, negotiated a deal under which the United States and allies provided aid to North Korea and promised to help it build a light water nuclear reactor in exchange for North Korea freezing its nuclear weapons program. Bill Clinton's defenders argue that as a result of this agreement, North Korea wasn't able to access plutonium from fuel rods, and thus its nuclear threat was held in check until President Bush came to Washington with his "Axis of Evil" talk, prompting North Korea to abandon the agreement and begin using plutonium to make nuclear bombs. This narrative downplays the fact that in 2002 North Korea admitted that it had been secretly enriching uranium in violation of the agreement, and that by many accounts North Korea had already acquired nuclear weapons in the 1990s.

It would be one thing if the Clinton administration were unwittingly duped, but the record shows that throughout the 1990s, North Korea openly flouted the agreement and the administration responded by conceding even more to the Stalinist nation.

In 1999, for instance, North Korea wouldn't allow the U.S. to inspect a suspected nuclear site. To gain access, the Clinton administration agreed to deliver 500,000 tons of food aid, which North Korea described as an "inspection fee."

North Korea also used its development of missiles to extract concessions. In August 1998, North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile over Japan and promised more such launches. A few months later it stepped up its inflammatory rhetoric, threatening to wipe American imperialists "from this planet for good." The Clinton administration responded by easing sanctions on North Korea, an act that a front page article in the September 18, 1999 New York Times described to as "the most extensive relaxation of sanctions against the North since the Korean War..."

Even during this time period, it was obvious to top administration officials that Pyongyang was still developing nuclear weapons in violation of the 1994 agreement.

A March 12, 1999 New York Times article quoted former Defense Secretary William Perry, who was then Clinton's special advisor to North Korea. In reference to the communist country, Perry said, "What they are doing is moving forward on their nuclear weapons" and elaborated that "We believe this is very serious...The long-range missile program itself suggests in parallel the development of a nuclear weapons program."

As part of a September 21, 2000 joint communique with South Korea, Defense Secretary William Cohen said, "North Korea's chemical, biological, nuclear, and long-range missile programs continue to pose a threat to (South Korea), U.S. and regional security."

Nonetheless, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited North Korea in October 2000, where she toasted dictator Kim Jong-Il and gave him a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan. The visit was supposed to lay the groundwork for a later visit by President Clinton, who was to negotiate another agreement on North Korea's missile program, but time ran out on his administration.

PROPONENTS OF RETURNING TO DIRECT TALKS with North Korea may argue that the country's nuclear program is further along now than it was during the end of the Clinton years. The most obvious response to that argument is that North Korea has had nearly six more years to develop nuclear weapons, so it makes sense that it would be further along.

President Bush still deserves criticism for allowing the program to advance, but that says more about the failure of his policies toward North Korea than it speaks to the wisdom of Clinton's nonproliferation strategy.

Rather than being actively hawkish, the Bush administration has been hawkish in theory and passive in practice. President Bush has made tough statements about a nuclear North Korea being "unacceptable," but has only responded by pursuing six-party talks that are hopeless without China's cooperation.

The purpose of pointing out the failures of U.S. policy toward North Korea in the 1990s should not be to score political points, but to respond to those who want to resurrect the same failed policy, not only with regard to North Korea, but with our other enemies as well.

It may be tempting to believe that talking to Iran and Syria could help the situation in Iraq and stall Iran's nuclear program, but that's simply wishful thinking. Syria and Iran will never help the U.S. succeed in Iraq, because a stable democratic Iraq is against their interests -- that's why they're supporting insurgents in the first place.

In the past several years, Iran has pursued a nuclear weapons program in defiance of the international community. Its leaders have spoken of a world without America and its president has threatened to wipe one of its neighbors off of the map. Were America to reward this behavior by engaging in direct talks with the country, it would only encourage Iran to act even more despicably.

There may be certain cases in which talking directly with our enemies can be helpful, but such dialogue does not work like magic pixie dust to fix problems that are intractable for a reason.

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About the Author

Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein