The Corner

Talking to Kim Jong Il, Again

Hours ago, South Korea conducted a live-fire drill in the face of North Korean threats of retaliation — Pyongyang raised the prospect of, among other things, global nuclear war in the event that Seoul fired rounds into the waters off Yeonpyeong Island. So, will the regime of Kim Jong Il carry through on its promises of complete devastation?

Make that a “Yes.” The official Korean Central News Agency today announced that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea “did not feel any need to retaliate,” but, of course, no one should believe what Pyongyang says at any particular moment, as they have made prevarication a high art form.

Lies aside, North Korea’s conduct unusually falls within established patterns. Judging from past events, we know Pyongyang will in fact retaliate, it will use deadly force, and it will do so when South Korea least expects it.

Too often, we have witnessed the same deadly pattern: Chairman Kim engages in some horrific act, the act raises tension, the tension persuades Washington to come to an arrangement with his regime, the arrangement results in money transferred to him, and the money funds another murderous event.

Many hope the freelance diplomacy of former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, sometimes called America’s ambassador to rogue states, will avoid a horrible retaliatory incident. Unfortunately, his ongoing trip to Pyongyang looks like it will end up doing the opposite, instead reinforcing the same old cycle.

While in the North Korean capital, Richardson announced that Pyongyang would negotiate the sale of 12,000 fuel rods to an outside party. That outside party is presumably South Korea, according to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who accompanied Richardson on his trip. Taking fissile material from Kim Jong Il is always a good thing — the less of it he has, the fewer nuclear warheads he can make — but the question is, why should we continue this deadly dynamic?

We have already bought the North Korean nuclear program — more than once — and we should not be paying for it again. Instead of negotiating with Kim and reaching deals he will dishonor, we should be working with our allies to squeeze the North. Both South Korea and Japan want a tougher policy from Washington. President Obama — at least so far — is wisely following the lead of Seoul and Tokyo and refusing to begin another round of fruitless negotiations.

Yet, as Richardson shows us, there are always those who think we can talk to Kim Jong Il. But just as Kim looks at his past while crafting policies for the future, so should we. We should remember that Ronald Reagan, in his dealings with the Soviet Union, believed he could engage hardline governments only when they knew they were defeated.

Kim Jong Il still thinks he has a winning hand. Therefore, the last thing we should be doing is legitimizing his regime by beginning a fresh round of negotiations over anything. So, yes, let’s talk to Kim — when he wants to surrender to the international community.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. Follow him on Twitter here, @GordonGChang.

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