The Administration's North Korea policy of "ABC"--Anything But Clinton--needs revision. When North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, President Bush responded by refusing to talk to Pyongyang for fear of rewarding bad behavior. As an initial gut reaction to abhorrent North Korean behavior in 2003, this response may have been understandable. But from a perspective of accomplishing the goal of denuclearizing North Korea, this policy continues to be a demonstrable failure.
The decision to play chicken with the North Koreans in 2003 gave them precisely what they wanted--plenty of time to develop their own nuclear capabilities. Finally after nearly a year had elapsed, the Administration belatedly embarked upon substantive multilateral talks spearheaded by Secretary Rice. Now, three years later, North Korea has finally demonstrated its nuclear capability. Nonetheless, the Administration continues to reject calls for direct, bilateral talks with the North Koreans, a condition North Korea has said would be a precursor to implementing the denuclearization agreement of September 2005.
Ideally the current UN sanctions will force North Korea to understand that it must denuclearize. But what if sanctions fail to persuade Kim Jong Il? Does the Administration have a second order strategy to deal with a nuclear North Korea?
With bilateral talks the Administration would be taking the first confidence building step to break the stalemate in what has been over a year without dialogue. This gesture would send a clear signal: the U.S. is not trying to topple the regime and it is serious about stabilizing relations between the two countries.
So what are the risks of initiating such direct talks?
First, the Administration has argued that multilateral talks are necessary because the U.S. needs the influence of China and South Korea. But there is no reason that bilateral and multilateral talks cannot co-exist. The Administration should continue to encourage coordinated Six Party Talks but also engage with North Korea on a one-on-one basis at the track-II diplomatic level. This way, the U.S. leverages Chinese and South Korean support on North Korea while still engaging with Pyongyang in a direct dialogue. Bilateral talks would also show our partners in China and South Korea that we are responsive to their preferences for a more diplomatic approach. Such an approach might give Kim Jong Il a face-saving way to say "yes" to reasonable incentives. At the same time, such a move would help rehabilitate the Administration's poor reputation for diplomacy in the international community.
Second, there are hard-liners who fear that the U.S. might look weak by acceding to a precondition of talks that President Bush has refused since the beginning of his presidency. If this Administration had a track record of being bullied, a world reputation for timidity, we might worry about the second-order effects of such a move. However, the concern of the world is not that the Bush Administration is soft, but rather that it does not listen.
This presidency's foreign policy is at a crossroads. A mid-term correction, animated by a unilateral openness to bilateral talks, however it may seem to the unsophisticated observer, is not weak. After all, our strongest asset during bilateral talks is our power to say "no"--to refuse demands that fail to meet American economic and security interests. Sitting down to listen and talk knowing that we reserve the full right and ability to say "no" at any moment, gives up nothing. It is a sign of our power, not our weakness; our maturity as the world's strongest democracy, not our churlishness as a schoolboy on the playground of world politics.
Negotiating is not about refusing to blink first. The best outcomes occur when there are candid exchanges and confidence building measures that tip the balance toward peace. Bilateral talks should not be regarded as rewards for bad behavior, but as another powerful tool--along with sanctions and continuing Six-Party Talks--by which we may secure our policy aims.
Some may question the advisability of bilateral negotiations if we believe that North Korea will not denuclearize. The truth is the stakes are too high to make such assumptions. Until we sit down and talk directly with Pyongyang, we cannot be certain of its true intentions. It is possible that North Korea will flout our direct gestures, signaling to the world its unwillingness to renounce nuclear weapons. If that happens, the Administration's hand will be strengthened in its diplomatic efforts with its allies to adopt a harder stance toward Pyongyang. But it is also possible that the Administration will have traded the insignificant "concession" of listening to the North Koreans in a bilateral forum for the end result of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, the avoidance of an Asian arms race, and the reduced threat of nuclear proliferation to terrorist groups.
There are times when the hard line is necessary. We should never fear to take that path. But we should not confuse toughness on the real-life issues with stubbornness on pre-conditions for dialogue. It's high-time that the Administration understand that listening and talking--at bilateral, multilateral, and second-track levels--are tools that may yield better results than playing a silly game of chicken.
Robert C. Bordone is the Thaddeus R. Beal Assistant Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the Director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program.
Albert Chang is a first-year student at Harvard Law School with expertise in U.S. foreign policy toward East Asia. A Harry S. Truman Scholar and Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow, Albert graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University in Political Science and International Security Studies.