A Triumph Of Diplomacy

North Korea’s acquiescence shows that ‘big stick’ diplomacy does not work

After the “Agreed Framework” between the United States and North Korea collapsed in 2002, the U.S. abandoned diplomacy in favor of a hard-line, isolationist approach. In his infamous State of the Union address, President George W. Bush went so far as to label North Korea part of an international “Axis of Evil.”

Since then, the notoriously secretive North Korean government has become increasingly impervious to American diplomatic pressure. With its recent underground nuclear test, Kim Jong Il’s regime has effectively taken the possibility of most sorts of military action from the U.S. off the table, and has rendered even diplomatic alternatives more complicated.

Ample evidence indeed for the failure of the Bush administration’s “big stick” brand of foreign policy.

In contrast, a recent, concerted return to the Six Party talks—involving the U.S., China, South Korea, North Korea, Russia, and Japan—has yielded valuable results, validating the effectiveness of “soft power” and engagement in dealing with North Korea, a strategy which we hope will be extended to other intractable regimes.

Ultimately, it was America’s greater flexibility and willingness to make an interim deal, as well as China’s cooperation, that made the present agreement possible. Indeed, China’s role cannot be overemphasized. As perhaps the only nation in the world capable of bringing North Korea to its knees without resorting to military force, China’s willingness to implement limited sanctions after North Korea’s nuclear test was crucial.

It was hugely disappointing that the diplomatic process that led to this agreement was, and continues to be, derisively labeled as a policy of appeasement by some. These detractors cite the breakdown, several years ago, of the “Agreed Framework”—a plan for eventual reconciliation brokered by the United States and North Korea in 1994—as evidence that the current arrangement is doomed to failure. We unequivocally reject this overly pessimistic position.

Admittedly, it is never possible to say with certainty whether someone as unpredictable as Kim Jong Il will uphold his end of the bargain. There is no indication, however, that continued sanctions would ever have coerced him to shutdown his nuclear power plants. Only through engagement and negotiation will we be able to change North Korea; isolationism can only result in heightened tensions and an increasingly belligerent state of affairs.

After almost five years and virtually no progress towards the stabilization of the Korean Peninsula, the Six Party talks seem to have resulted, after just a few months, in the shutdown of the nuclear plant in Yongbyon. But, perhaps more importantly, this agreement was effected through the joint efforts of the U.S. and China. This agreement represents an incremental and preliminary change, to be sure, but a promising one.

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