This week's meeting between U.S. Special Envoy Glyn Davies and North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan will be the first official encounter between the United States and North Korea since the death of Kim Jong Il two months ago. After endless speculation by the press and experts about the future of North Korea, this meeting will be an important reality check: an opportunity to take the pulse of the new management in Pyongyang, and particularly to discern changes or continuity in its efforts to build weapons of mass destruction.
Even on a good day, of course, we underestimate the difficulties of dealing with North Korea at our peril. Korea specialists are fond of calling it the "land of no good options" (although that is probably true for many foreign-policy challenges facing the United States today). The North remains the poster child for rogue states because of 60 years of bad behavior, including its more recent nuclear and missile tests in 2006 and 2009 and conventional military attacks on South Korea in 2010. If there is anyone who knows that, it's those of us who have had direct experience dealing with North Koreans at the negotiating table, on the ground, or conducting any other business face-to-face with them.
(I will never forget one of my first visits as a U.S. government official to the Yongbyon nuclear facility in 1996, when I was harangued by a senior North Korean engineer who complained bitterly about the United States and its treatment of his country for what felt like hours. I let him speak his peace, though I considered an equally nasty response that would have made my friends from New York proud. In the end, I responded in true State Department fashion that I would tell my superiors about his concerns and suggested we get down to business. He rapidly shifted gears and our talks were successful.)
At the same time, what is striking about the discourse in Washington these days is that we seem to have bought into myths that make Pyongyang appear 10 feet tall. The most egregious has to do with negotiating with North Korea. For the past three years, the Obama administration has harped on the dangers of talking to the North Koreans, emitting a steady stream of platitudes such as not "buying the same horse twice," or "talking for talk's sake" that make it sound like they have taken us to the cleaners more than once in the past.
When I was in the State Department, we use to joke that the North Koreans and the Israelis would be quite a matchup in the "World Series" of negotiators. The North Koreans are tough customers. But a myth-free examination of the past two decades reveals a reality Americans for some reason refuse to recognize -- the United States has done very well negotiating with Pyongyang.