North Korea Makes Nice: An Opening for the U.S.?

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KCNA / Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il

For all its vaunted reputation as the world's "Hermit Kingdom" — the ostensibly inscrutable nation that leaves the outside world guessing about what goes on inside its borders — North Korea can also be predictable. Since at least the early 1990s, Pyongyang's relations and level of engagement with its neighbors and with Washington have swung wildly from outright hostility toward rapprochement and back again. No matter how tense things get, Kim Jong Il (like his father Kim Il Sung before him) always steps back from the ledge and tries to re-engage.

Bill Clinton's mission to rescue the two journalists held captive by Pyongyang marked the start of the latest North Korean charm offensive, with Kim trying to play the affable host to the serious ex-President of the U.S. It continued when Pyongyang released a South Korean businessman it was also holding as a hostage, and it intensified last weekend, when North Korea sent a delegation of officials — including its chief spymaster, head of intelligence Kim Yang Gon — to the funeral for the late South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. The delegation stayed an extra day, requesting and getting a meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak. According to South Korean news accounts, they carried a "conciliatory message" from Kim Jong Il. Historically, the North's intention has been to evoke a "euphoric reaction in its opponents for simply returning to the previously unacceptable status quo," says Bruce Klingner, former deputy head of Korean analysis at the CIA.

That status quo now consists of a full-bore pursuit of a nuclear-weapons program — despite a pledge to cease and desist at the so-called six-party talks held during the Bush Administration — as well as a long-range missile development program that continues despite a U.N. resolution calling for its end. The North, moreover, has already attached an important condition to its re-engagement: last week, its diplomats told New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under Bill Clinton, that Pyongyang would return to the negotiating table only if it could deal directly with the U.S. and not the other countries involved in the six-party talks.

The North, in other words, has now successfully placed the onus on Washington's shoulders. How will the U.S. respond? It's no secret that the Obama Administration came into office inclined to deal directly with Pyongyang. But the North's serial hostility in the first months of the Administration took Washington by surprise. It returned the hostility by tightening financial sanctions against the North and by insisting, in the phrase of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, that there was no chance the Administration would buy the "same horse twice" in negotiations with North Korea. That is, it was not going to offer more inducements to get the North to do what it had already agreed to: stand down its nukes.

Obama debriefed Bill Clinton face to face last week; details of the message that the former President carried from Kim Jong Il are not yet known. But make no mistake, the whiff of horse flesh is again in the air. For now, according to diplomats and officials in Seoul, both the Obama Administration and its allies in South Korea are in agreement: under no circumstances will they back off their demand for complete denuclearization in the North. But a senior official in Seoul tells TIME that South Korea will allow the disbursement of economic aid to the North "in parallel" with the progress North Korea makes on denuclearization. The official says this has always been Lee Myung Bak's policy, and it's not likely that there is any daylight between Washington and Seoul on this issue.

Seoul remains wary of the North's plea for direct negotiations with Washington, given Pyongyang's long history of trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. But the official in Seoul stressed that should bilateral talks occur, Lee has confidence that the Obama Administration would be completely transparent in sharing information and in shaping any policy response in conjunction with its close ally in Seoul. South Korea, in other words, won't object strenuously to direct talks should they come.

The overarching question, for both the U.S. and South Korea, is whether Pyongyang will get rid of its nuclear program as it has twice agreed. But Cheong Seong-Chang, director of Inter-Korean Relations at the Sejong Institute, notes one important difference: Kim Jong Il has been sick, and has apparently taken steps to arrange a dynastic succession for his youngest son, Kim Jong Un. It's possible that Kim may want to do a deal once and for all. Suffice to say that the Obama Administration has little choice but to see whether that's true.

With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul