The U.S. administration has just invited a senior North Korean official, Kim Kye Gwan, to come to New York to talk about ending Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Or, as these things tend to play out in the meta-world of North Korean nuclear shakedowns, to talk about holding further talks to talk about ending North Korea’s nuclear program.
As it happens, we’ve been here before — with the same North Korean senior official, Kim Kye Gwan. In 2007, it was the Bush administration that invited Kim Kye-gwan to come talk nukes in New York. Kim spent a lively four hours dining and drinking at the Waldorf with the U.S. envoy of the hour, Chris Hill. That was followed by U.S. concessions and gifts to North Korea which included free food and fuel, arrangements to return to Kim Jong Il some $25 million in allegedly tainted North Korean funds frozen in Macau, and the removal of North Korea from the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring states. North Korea’s regime responded by stalling, stonewalling, cheating and ultimately walking away from the denuclearization deal; then conducted a second nuclear test in 2009 and in 2010 unveiled a uranium enrichment facility which it had previously denied.
The Obama administration, to its credit, has so far refrained from being suckered into another of these North Korean shakedown routines. But that could all be about to change, with Kim Kye Gwan preparing to enjoy another round of American hospitality in the Big Apple.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, “We are open to talks with North Korea, but we do not intend to reward the North just for returning to the table.” Too late. For North Korea, a United Nations-sanctioned erstwhile pariah of the so-called international community, it is already a reward to have America dignify Vice Foreign Minister and former nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan by inviting him for an encore in New York. And with the State Department saying America is looking for signs that North Korea is serious about returning to the negotiating table, a negotiation of sorts has already begun — in which America is already at a disadvantage. North Korea’s negotiators are masters at taking whatever they can get, and then welshing on whatever they have promised.
But if the State Department is determined to entertain Kim yet again in New York, there might be a way to redeem the situation. Upon Kim Kye Gwan’s arrival, U.S. officials ought to offer him five little words, and nothing more. Quite simply: “Would you like to defect?” It’s unlikely Kim would say yes. But if he does, that would be a lovely diplomatic coup, and an excellent start to the next round of “talks” with North Korea. And if he doesn’t, it’s still the kind of message that might provoke some useful cogitation among his colleagues back in the gloomy confines of Pyongyang. Haggling with the North Korean regime is a routine that by now fits the definition of insanity. Inviting Pyongyang’s envoys to come to New York, as long as they then stay there for good, might sound crazy. But something in this routine needs to change. Why not give it a try?