After more than fifty years of conflict, the Korean Peninsula is poised for a dramatic breakthrough. The successful June summit between the leaders of North and South Korea is only the latest in a series of diplomatic advances. Over the past year, North Korea has been patching up relations with friends and adversaries alike. In South Korea, meanwhile, a strong political consensus continues to favor engagement with the north. The United States can play a critical role in hastening progress in Korea, if the Clinton administration can overcome cold war resistance in Congress, the Pentagon, and the State Department.
From Washington's point of view, the chief obstacles to peace in the region are Pyongyang's missiles and weapons of mass destruction. In 1994, the U.S. considered bombing North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons facilities. The Agreed Framework, negotiated at the last moment, committed the two countries to a set of sequenced compromises. The U.S. agreed to provide heavy oil, begin lifting economic sanctions, and help construct two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea to compensate Pyongyang for the freezing of its nuclear program.
In 1998-99, the two countries again collided--over North Korea's rocket launch in August 1998 and accusations from both sides of noncompliance with the Agreed Framework. A turning point occurred in September 1999, when the United States recommitted to lifting economic sanctions and North Korea promised to suspend testing of its long-range missiles. This year, the two countries have discussed a U.S. visit by a high-ranking North Korean official and, once again, the possible exchange of liaison offices.
This U.S.-North Korean rapprochement is taking place within the context of a much larger process of engagement. North Korea has been dubbed the most isolated country in the world, as manifested by the 1993-94 nuclear crisis. But in the past year, North Korea has made up for lost time in improving relations with the most powerful capitalist countries in the world. This policy bore fruit in January, when North Korea established its first official tie with a G-7 country, Italy. Normalization of relations between North Korea and Australia followed in May. In April, North Korea and Japan restarted talks that may lead to formal recognition. If issues such as alleged North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens are resolved, Japan will provide billions of dollars in compensation for its colonial crimes.
North Korea is extending diplomatic feelers in many directions, but the approach is not scattershot. …