Nick Kristof, in the New York Times, and Wendy Sherman, in the Washington Post, have both written columns this past week urging the Bush administration to "negotiate" with North Korea. It's not at all clear what the verb even means in the context of North Korea, a nation that has consistently ignored any and all commitments it has made in the course of its past "negotiations" with Western countries. As far as anyone can tell, simply airdropping food, money and leaflets proclaiming friendship over Pyongyang would be faster, easier and no less effective than attempting to engage in some kind of empty diplomatic charade with the government headquartered there. The strongest argument Kristof can come up with in favor of opening up a dialog is that the current policy of sanctions and isolation is "not working". But it's hard for him to make that claim when he can't point to any goal that negotiations could plausibly achieve that is not already being accomplished by today's policy of what amounts to irritated neglect.
Sherman, however, makes a much more relevant point: The South Korean government and public currently both support (however foolishly) a policy of engagement. And given that South Korea is the main "front-line" state targeted by the North, and a strong US ally to boot, any American stance more hardline than Seoul's would not only stir South Korean resentment (Sherman's primary, largely irrelevant concern) but, more importanly, end up being undercut by South Korean accommodationism. A policy of isolation, for instance, is pretty difficult to enforce if the South is disinclined to participate in its implementation.
The US has been in these shoes before, of course--most notably at various moments during the Cold War, when Western Europe distanced itself from more hawkish American administrations trying to maintain a united front of firmness against the Soviet Union. (Non-Israeli skeptics of the late stages of the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" were in a similarly difficult position during Ehud Barak's prime ministership, when he started making huge unilateral concessions in the hopes of winning reciprocation from Arafat. Who were we, after all, to second-guess the nation that stood to suffer the most serious consequences of any error in judgment?)
But the lesson of these past encounters with crazy regimes is clear: totalitarian leaders, when offered concessions, invariably overplay their hands, and healthy democracies, after a period of foolish flirtation, always come around--eventually--and respond by toughening up their stances. In the case of the Korean peninsula, where Pyongyang has never been shy about directly provoking the South with pointless acts of shocking aggression, the pattern is particularly dependable. The US should quietly agree to follow Seoul's lead regarding North-South relations, confident that sooner rather than later, America's view will be vindicated, and its South Korean partner will willingly join it in applying sustained, vigorous pressure (to the extent possible) on the maniacal regime to the north.