The Bush administration's approach to North Korea was once quite consistent with its overall foreign policy. There was name-calling, a preference for regime change, and an emphasis on military solutions. Not surprisingly, then, the relationship between the United States and North Korea, like so many other tense stand-offs, deteriorated over the last seven years. The United States accused the third member of the "axis of evil" of money-laundering, missile sales, and a secret program for the production of nuclear material. For its part, North Korea responded tit for tat at the rhetorical level. And, in October 2006, it upped the ante by exploding a nuclear device. If the United States were not tied up in other military conflicts, and eyeing Iran to boot, a war in Northeast Asia might have been higher on the administration's to-do list.
But all of that appeared to change in 2007. Chastened by military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, anxious about the vulnerability of the Republican party on foreign policy issues in 2008, and accused of having allowed North Korea to "go nuclear" on its watch, the Bush administration reversed its hard-line policy. Washington agreed to negotiate seriously with Pyongyang, provide it with incentives on the road to denuclearization rather than only at the end of the process, and meet face to face when necessary.
The results of this turnabout were dramatic. The February 13, 2007 agreement in the Six Party Talks--among the United States, the two Koreas, Japan, China, and Russia--not only illuminated a path toward a denuclearized Korean peninsula. It also outlined steps toward the normalization of political relations with Pyongyang, a replacement of the Korean War armistice with a peace treaty, and the building of a regional peace structure for Northeast Asia.
Many conservatives were aghast that the Bush administration, after six years of ABC (Anything But Clinton), was essentially exhuming the Clinton administration's engagement policies toward North Korea. From their perspective, the Six Party Talks were only supposed to be a holding pattern until the regime in Pyongyang finally collapsed through a combination of outside pressure and internal weakness. When the Six Party Talks instead produced a breakthrough agreement, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton denied any achievement and declared, "I think the six-party talks failed." He then recycled his earlier position: "I think the only solution is the enhanced isolation of North Korea, ultimately bringing the regime down and peacefully reuniting the peninsula."
So far in 2008, progress toward implementing last year's February 13 agreement has slowed. North Korea has begun shutting down its Yongbyon plutonium facilities and readmitted inspectors, and the United States has sent about 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil and 5,000 tons of steel products for its power plants. Nevertheless, disagreements remain. North Korea missed the first deadline for delivering a complete declaration of its nuclear program, and a second one looms at the end of February. Meanwhile, the United States has yet to remove the country from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Even if these hurdles are cleared, several more remain. It is not yet clear whether North Korea will entirely give up its nuclear deterrent or whether the United States will remove all economic sanctions and extend diplomatic recognition.
The fragile detente between North Korea and the United States might succumb to its internal challenges. But hard-line opponents don't want to leave it to chance, and so are marshalling their arguments to strangle this hopeful development in its cradle.
Criticisms of engagement policy fall into several categories. Some critics, like Bolton, continue to hold onto the old Bush strategy of isolation and regime change because, they argue, North Korea cannot be trusted to abide by any agreement. Other critics focus on North Korea's nuclear program itself, both its internal characteristics and purported external cooperation with countries such as Syria. …