Historically, Jimmy Carter's meeting with Kim Il Sung during the dangerous nuclear crisis of 1994 helped steer Washington and Pyongyang back to a more peaceful trajectory. South Korean President Kim Young-sam, excited by the prospect of Seoul's first-summit ever with Kim Il Sung in summer 1994, banked on his counterpart issuing "on-the-spot guidance" that would alter history, only to have the North Korean leader die before the meeting. The ensuing summitry between Kim Jong Il and two South Korean presidents played a conspicuous role in building better relations beginning in the late 1990s. Even President Lee Myung-bak, second to none in his tough approach to the North, yearned for a summit, as does Park Geun-hye, the new South Korean leader.
Of course, no American president would just pick up the phone to call the leader of a country that had just conducted its third nuclear test in defiance of the international community. But this administration studiously avoided contact with the North Korean leadership for much of its first term, probably because of concerns about domestic political blowback. Former President Bill Clinton's visit to Pyongyang in summer 2009 to retrieve two American journalists detained by the North was a rare opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong Il. However, rather than allow the former president to explore solutions to the serious problems between Washington and Pyongyang, the administration tied his hands. Kurt Campbell, until recently the State Department official in charge of Asia, even recommended to the former president that he "channel his inner Dick Cheney" and "look as dour as possible whenever there were cameras around." That explains pictures of a smiling Kim with an uncharacteristically glum Clinton.
What does all this mean for U.S. policy? Rodman's trip highlighted a need, if I can use a basketball metaphor, to step up our game and adopt a "strong diplomacy, strong containment approach." An important part of such an approach would be a willingness to hold face-to-face meetings between authoritative officials from both countries. The third-ranking official in the State Department now meets regularly with Iranians in multilateral nuclear negotiations, while we talk to North Korea only through low-level diplomats at the United Nations or Foreign Ministry bureaucrats. Those meetings would clarify North Korean views, particularly on whether there is room to negotiate (we can't get that from Pyongyang's hyperbolic media) or to rebuild cooperation with a China that desperately wants to dampen tensions on the peninsula and, if possible, to reach agreements that serve U.S. interests.
To be effective, strong diplomacy must be backed by serious financial and material sanctions, military measures to bolster our defenses, others to stop Pyongyang's efforts to earn hard currency through illicit activities, and anything else we can think of to raise the costs of North Korean misbehavior. The Obama administration would argue that it is pursuing such an approach, but it's clear there is room for additional measures. That would be one objective of a policy review -- to evaluate steps already taken and to posit new ones. An added benefit is that if our diplomacy fails to stop Pyongyang, we will be in a strong position to contain the North.
Unfortunately, diplomacy has become a dirty word for a U.S. administration driven by domestic politics, not national interest. As former State Department official Vali Nasr observed this week in his revealing Foreign Policy article about his time inside the administration, "the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors" whose primary concern was "how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news or which talking point it would give the Republicans." If the Obama administration is more concerned with Republican criticism than the growing North Korean threat, maybe putting Dennis Rodman in charge of our North Korea policy is exactly what we need.