What Engagement?


Far Eastern Economic Review

TOKYO AND SEOUL had been trying to make U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly's trip to Pyongyang appear like a positive initiative compelled by their own diplomatic "breakthroughs." It would take Mr. Kelly to show what his trip was about: Been there, done that; now can we get back to thinking about what to do with Kim Jong Il?
What has not been said about the trip is just as significant as what happened. That the United States sent Mr. Kelly to Pyongyang and not a more senior official like John Bolton, who is responsible for arms control and international security, underlined Washington's belief that substantive issues with Pyongyang weren't likely to be resolved this way. Like Assistant Secretary of Defence Peter Rodman's trip to Beijing, this was an exercise to show that all relevant options were being considered in each case.
If any evidence is needed that North Korea wasn't playing ball anyway, consider that Pyongyang Broadcasting Station chose to air a five-minute commentary, picked up by the BBC the day after Mr. Kelly left, titled "U.S. Warmonger's Curse Distorting the Reality." The commentary apparently refers to Mr. Bolton's recent visit to Seoul, and says: "The U.S. warmongers should stop blabbering nonsense that distorts the reality, renounce its hostile policy towards [North Korea] and behave properly." Mr. Kelly had delivered a message of "serious concerns" from the White House about North Korea's weapons of mass destruction. "Engagement" was never on the horizon.
With the U.S. having done what Tokyo and Seoul pushed for and got no result, Japan and South Korea may now want to proceed with more caution than they have displayed. Indeed, rather than defuse tension, both have been making things easier for any future North Korean aggression. In particular, we worry about the train lines being reopened between the North and South. As was brought to our attention, each will have a road running alongside wide enough for a tank. You have to wonder why Seoul doesn't just offer to de-mine the entire Demilitarized Zone.
When George W. Bush spoke of an "axis of evil," he wasn't showing off oratorical flourish; he isn't known for that. Instead, it was a statement of purpose, with Iraq at the top of the agenda. Little, however, has been said about North Korea. Consequently, we can't tell what specifics the U.S. has in mind. But our guess would be that going through all the options is prelude to a policy announcement. Interestingly, Mr. Bush will talk directly to leaders of all the key players--bar North Korea--later this month. First, Jiang Zemin arrives in Texas. After that, Mr. Bush meets his Japanese and South Korean counterparts at the Apec forum in Mexico. Forget engagement, stay tuned.