Every aggressive, internationally sanctioned despotism with nuclear ambitions needs a few tricks in its diplomatic tool kit, and one of these — when the going gets rough — is the so-called “diplomatic charm offensive.”
This season, as anointed last week by the New York Times, the big charmer is North Korea. Not that there’s anything in this “charm offensive” that’s actually charming. But North Korea — with its record of rogue missile and nuclear tests, abductions, counterfeiting, threats to destroy its enemies with “seas of fire,” generally taciturn diplomats and whatnot — has set the bar so low that anything remotely resembling normal diplomatic activity (in form, if not function) tends to be hailed abroad as a promising sign. So, when North Korea sent a high-level delegation to South Korea earlier this month, freed one of the three Americans it has most recently been holding in prison, and sent forth some diplomats from its United Nations mission in New York to field questions from policy makers and the press, this outreach inspired such headlines as the Times’s “The Latest North Korean Mystery: A Diplomatic Charm Offensive.”
What’s North Korea up to? The obvious guess is that Pyongyang is trying to deflect criticism of its atrocious human rights record, as laid out in a detailed and damning report released this past March by a special UN Commission of Inquiry, led by Australian jurist Michael Kirby. This commission accused North Korea’s government, at the highest levels, of crimes against humanity, and warned North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un that he could be held responsible and referred to the international justice system. There is now a push at the UN by the European Union and Japan to urge the Security Council to refer Kim himself to the International Criminal Court. Kim evidently does not like this idea, and his diplomatic envoys have been deployed in a campaign to stop any such referral. If you’d like to sample some of this North Korean “charm,” here’s a link to a debate this past week at a UN side event in New York, hosted by the Jacob Blaustein Institute and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea — in which Kirby goes toe-to-toe with a North Korean diplomat over the issue of the Kim regime’s crimes against humanity.
Clearly this dust-up over human rights is of particular concern to Pyongyang. But my guess is that there’s even more going on here — and it has to do with Iran. Recall that just last year, Iran launched its own charm offensive. At the 2013 annual opening of the UN General Assembly, the newly inaugurated President Hasan Rouhani replaced the boorish former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At Rouhani’s side was the smooth-talking, U.S.-schooled veteran diplomat and new foreign minister, Javad Zarif. It was all considered so charming that two months later, in Nov., 2013, the Obama administration swooned its way into an interim agreement for the U.S. plus five other world powers to engage in nuclear talks with Iran, aiming for a grand comprehensive agreement to be hammered out within six months. Predictably enough (and some of us did predict this) the talks have dragged on for almost a year now (with the original July deadline extended to Nov. 24) and Iran’s regime has done quite well for itself out of the process — refusing to give up its nuclear infrastructure, while dangling before heavily invested U.S. and European diplomats the bait of a deal. Some sanctions on Iran have been suspended, some are now more loosely enforced, and Tehran — world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism — has been courted by western businesses, while its foreign minister, Zarif, has been wooed by western negotiators.
This is the Iranian version of a scam pioneered over the past two decades by North Korea. Come to the nuclear bargaining table, pocket whatever you can get, and proceed toward the bomb. If anything, Iran with its oil wealth and deeper bench of polished diplomats has by now improved on the North Korean model. And North Korea has not been back to the bargaining table since it cheated and reneged on its 2007 nuclear freeze deal, which collapsed in 2008. Kim Jong Un, who in 2011 inherited totalitarian power from his late father, King Jong Il, has never had a serious bite at this apple (if we discount a lesser deal that arrived stillborn in 2012).
So, even apart from Pyongyang’s campaign to counter those critics who are quite rightly targeting its monstrous record on human rights, is it likely that North Korea might now be borrowing a page from Iran’s charm-offensive playbook? Could North Korea’s diplomatic blitz be doubling as a bid to get back to the bounty of nuclear extortion paid out by the West at the bargaining table? Yes it could — and right on cue, Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed North Korea’s release last week of American prisoner Jeffrey Fowle with a statement that the U.S. hopes “the dynamics” of this erstwhile charm offensive might soon produce a return to nuclear talks with North Korea. It’s even worth asking if Iran and North Korea have been talking with each other about how to game the U.S. Certainly they talk to each other about their nuclear programs, as reported by none other than Iran’s Fars News Agency. More on all that in my column on “North Korea Takes a Tip from Iran’s ‘Charm Offensive’?”
What’s next? When weak-willed U.S. diplomacy looks ripe to be played by dictatorships to their own advantage, Potemkin enticements tend to appear. It was less than four years ago that Syria’s Assad regime was mounting its own charm offensive, so neatly summed up by the ill-timed Vogue cover story on Asma al-Assad, “A Rose in the Desert.” With Iran and North Korea paving the way, are we about due for a sequel?