Dear Leader’s big moment for détente?

Negotiating with North Korea was never simple — but as threats of confrontation with the South ease,

Signs are emerging that the tensions in the Korean Peninsula are beginning to subside after months of noisy confrontation. On 7 September the North released the captured seven-man crew of a South Korean fishing boat; days later, it proposed the resumption of a family reunion programme that has been suspended for longer than a year. Seoul, swallowing its distress at Pyongyang's sinking of its naval vessel the Cheonan in March, with the loss of 46 South Korean lives, is giving sympathetic consideration to North Korea's request for aid.

Meanwhile, Washington is pushing for resumption of the six-party talks on the North's nuclear programme, involving China, Japan, the Koreas, Russia and the US. And a rumoured party conference this month is expected to reveal who will be the next leader of the world's most notorious pariah state. But there is unlikely to be any progress unless Washington, in particular, learns from past mistakes.

North Korea's Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, is in poor health, and preparations for the coro­nation of his son Kim Jong-un have prompted speculation that the transition might push the cash-strapped regime to collapse. Pyongyang recently offered to repay its debt to the Czech Republic in kind - 2,000 tonnes of ginseng, which, at current rates of consumption, would keep the Czechs going for 200 years. But North Korea has seen worse times: the last transition happened in 1994, when it was suffering a savage famine. Even so, the regime retained its grip. Its legitimacy, such as it is, rests on a nar­rative of patriotism and defiance that feeds on internal hardship and external hostility.

The escalation of economic sanctions by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is a sign that, in Washington, the diplomatic cupboard is bare. Despite decades of isolation and sanctions, North Korea remains a potentially dangerous nuclear state capable of attacking Tokyo and destroying Seoul. The military shadow-boxing of the past few months is nature's way of reminding us that the world's last cold war stand-off remains a potential flashpoint.

Efforts to resolve this stale confrontation are constrained by domestic politics on all fronts: in Washington, right-wing politicians are hostile to the suggestion that any deal is possible with an "axis of evil" state, and Pyongyang uses US hostility to justify its belligerence and excuse its failures. The US, North Korea and South Korea all proclaim unification as the ideal outcome for the divided peninsula, but none can produce an acceptable scenario to achieve it.

Reunification is the Augustinian goal of both Koreas - an outcome to be invoked, but not to be achieved any time soon. In Washington, regime collapse in the North is portrayed as the prelude to reunification along the lines of the German model, in which the capitalist South would absorb the discredited communist state. This is the storybook ending, after all, to evil regimes. But China, Pyongyang's only friend, would not allow that to happen.

There is little affection these days between Beijing and Pyongyang. The North Korean regime is a truculent and unpredictable neighbour that both depends on and fears Beijing's power. Pyongyang takes care to set limits on Beijing's influence. But although the Chinese find little to love in North Korea, they prefer to prop it up, rather than see a takeover by South Korea that would bring US influence to the banks of the Yalu River, on the frontier between China and North Korea.

Half a century ago, China fought US-led troops in Korea back to the 38th parallel to prevent hostile forces from camping on its border. Today, it props up the Kim dynasty for the same reason. Dismal though North Korea's daily reality is, the status quo, for China, is the best achievable option.

New rhetoric

Given Beijing's strategic imperatives, what can the US do? First, it should abandon the festering corpse of George W Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric and return to an era in which Washington had a sensible North Korea policy. In 1994, on President Bill Clinton's watch, a deal was struck in which North Korea promised to freeze and eventually dismantle its plutonium-producing nuclear facilities. In return, the US offered to supply 500,000 tonnes of heavy-fuel oil a year, while Japan and South Korea pledged to build light-water reactors to address North Korea's severe energy shortage.

Had it come to fruition, North Korea would have had enough energy to revive its economy and Japan and South Korea could have escaped the threat - never to be discounted - that the North's nuclear capability might one day lead to a live war that nobody wants. But, in 2002, Bush accused North Korea of violating the deal. North Korea expelled the nuclear inspectors, fired up the Yongbyon reactor and reverted to a policy of threat. From Pyongyang's perspective at least, it works.

North Korea has a few, relatively straight­forward, diplomatic ambitions: a peace treaty, normalisation of relations with the US and some version of the aborted Clinton agreement. If that could be achieved, long-suffering North Koreans could aspire to modest prosperity and a less paranoid state. China's security concerns would be addressed, Japan could sleep more easily, and a more stable North Korea might become a possible partner for eventual reunification. Now that the other options have failed, perhaps the lessons can be learned.

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue.net