We shouldn't ''engage'' with a government that kills, suppresses and starves its citizens.
Quick quiz on North Korea:
Can you name a single democratic dissident currently active inside North Korea? Just one? Is there any North Korean equivalent to Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi? Is there a North Korean Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela? Is there any parallel to any of the dissidents who agitated openly for years in South Korea to bring about the 1988 switch from dictatorship to democracy in Seoul?
OK, it's a trick question. In North Korea, there is no one who can be named.
That's not because all North Koreans are happy with a government that brutalizes and starves them by the millions while building missiles and nuclear weapons. It's because anyone who might become known inside the country as a dissenter from the tyrannical Kim Jong Il and his gang would have to immediately flee or face oblivion. The alternatives would not include house arrest or high-profile prison time.
North Korea's government replies to any suspected lapse of total loyalty either with execution or consignment to the prison camps, where Kim Jong Il's enemies and their families disappear from the rest of human ken.
Reporters Without Borders, in its 2008 annual report, reminds us that for the deed of having made phone calls abroad without permission, a North Korean director of a state company was "executed by firing squad in 2007." The same report also mentions a journalist, Song Keum-chul, working for North Korea's wholly state-owned and controlled television network, who "was sent to a concentration camp at the end of 1995 for having set up a small group of critical journalists and nothing has been heard of him since."
What became of Song Keum-chul? What are the names of the hundreds of thousands of North Koreans currently being frozen, starved and worked to death in Kim's gulag? What are the names of those who have died there? Where, in short, are the dissidents who dwell inside North Korea?
As Hillary Clinton makes her maiden swing as Secretary of State through North Asia, these are questions she should be raising--at every press encounter, of every leader and in every speech. This is the issue which--even more than the pressing matter of nuclear weapons--cuts to the core of the problem with North Korea.
In the 15 years since Kim Jong Il succeeded his Stalin-installed father, Kim Il Sung, the country's dynastic regime has proven one of the most monstrous and illegitimate on earth. And yet, America returns again and again to the bargaining table--haggling, bribing and thus dignifying and fortifying the government that is the source of both North Korea's agonies at home and its threats abroad.
Clinton, like her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, has already laid out a public position implying that the problem is not Kim Jong Il himself--only his nuclear habits. Clinton's goal, as she told the press Sunday while en route to Tokyo, is "the denuclearization of North Korea."
That statement might, of course, include a hidden agenda. There have long been whispers that behind such diplomacy is a backroom calculus that relieving Kim of his nuclear program would lead to his downfall. But we might safely assume by now that Kim and his circle know that, too. Pyongyang's routine is to commit to ending its nuclear habit--It's easy to quit! They've done it before!--rake in aid, cheat on the deal and repeat. America feeds this cycle, looking for ways to "engage," while dismissing the problem that the only real engagement in this routine would be with the regime.
So runs the endless diplomatic loop, as North Korea piles up weapons, shakes down America and her allies and consorts with proliferators, such as Pakistan, and rogue-regime nuclear wannabes, such as Syria and Iran.
Though Hillary Clinton in the role of Secretary of State may appear fresh and new to American voters, the veteran extortionists of Pyongyang have loads of reasons to view her new brief as old home week.
It was Hillary's husband, President Bill Clinton, who helped cement Kim Jong Il's regime during the shaky period in 1994 when the regime of the Soviet Union, along with the communist governments in many of its satellites, had only recently collapsed. Kim Il Sung, Kim's father, had just died. North Korea was in mid-bluster over its nuclear ambitions and going through its first and only transition of power since its Stalin-engendered creation in 1948.
America was at that point the undisputed world superpower--riding high on the results of Ronald Reagan's policy of treating the Soviet Union, first and foremost, as the evil empire it was.
But instead of standing up to North Korea in 1994, with the possibility to bring down its regime, Clinton stepped in and legitimized Kim Jr. by cutting a deal. Jimmy Carter went to Pyongyang and out of his palaver came the Agreed Framework, in which America, in exchange for a North Korean promise of a nuclear freeze, led the offering of two turnkey reactors, plus a torrent of aid.
Kim Jong Il consolidated his grip, at the cost--or, arguably, with the help--of a famine during the mid and late 1990s, in which an estimated one million or so North Koreans starved to death.
One defector I interviewed a few years ago recalled the wasted bodies, covered in vermin, stacked like cordwood at train stations. Courtesy of an American-led consortium of appeasers, free food and fuel flowed to the North Korean government, which selected who would be left to starve and who would be fed--under North Korea's official policy ofsongun, or "military first."
Here we are, 15 years after Bill Clinton's Agreed Framework, and the main "change" under Obama looks like little more than a game of musical chairs. Just last month, I joked to a friend that we were about due for another article from American commentator Selig Harrison, who has been trumpeting engagement for more than 20 years.
Lo, this week, writing in the Washington Post, Harrison popped up on cue, fresh from his latest trip to Pyongyang, suggesting a whole shopping list of ways in which America might next pay off North Korea in the name of "engagement"--from resuming the construction of two nuclear reactors for Kim to more haggling over not only nuclear programs but missiles, too.
And from Tokyo on Tuesday, reprising recent language from Condoleezza Rice and her point man for North Korea, Chris Hill, we heard Hillary Clinton declare that a missile test threatened by North Korea would be "very unhelpful."
(Note to Madame Secretary: North Korea is not trying to be "helpful.")
By now, the monuments to failed U.S. efforts to corral North Korea's regime and contain its nuclear ventures could stock quite a museum. The exhibits could include: The foundations of the two multibillion-dollar nuclear reactors that a U.S.-headquartered consortium began building for Kim Jong Il in the 1990s; the basketball signed by Michael Jordan that Madeleine Albright delivered personally to Kim Jong Il in 2000; bank records for the $25 million in allegedly crime-tainted money that the Bush administration arranged to have transferred to Kim in 2007; satellite photographs of the secret nuclear reactor built with North Korean help in Syria (destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007); the program for the concert with which the New York Philharmonic serenaded the Pyongyang elite in 2008; and receipts for America's multimillion-dollar reimbursement to Pyongyang for the 2008 Potemkin-style demolition of a cooling tower in North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex.
The exhibits of such a museum should also, in the name of human decency, include a holocaust memorial to the millions of North Koreans killed by this regime that America has appeased, bribed, cosseted, subsidized and serenaded.
To be fair, it is to Hillary Clinton's credit that in Japan this week she met with families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. These families, reasonably enough, asked her to put North Korea back on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, from which the Bush administration removed it last October in a failed bid to salvage years of nuclear haggling. It remains to be seen whether Clinton will heed their advice or treat the encounter merely as one more chore of a "listening" tour.
What's desperately needed, however, is real change, which would alter the morally grotesque and flawed dynamic of the diplomacy with which America--apart from a brief break during the first term of George W. Bush--has for years been sending envoys to engage with Stalin's heirs in Pyongyang.
What if President Obama were to offer all the usual American largesse, and then some, to North Korea--food, fuel, extended hands, full diplomatic ties--but all to be delivered only when the Kim regime itself is verifiably gone? If, as reported, Kim suffered a bad stroke last August, that's all the better for reaching out to those in North Korea who would welcome the demise of his government..
Hey, President Obama and Secretary Clinton: You wouldn't even have to frame it as official policy. Have a slip with an open microphone! Remember Ronald Reagan's erstwhile gaffe in 1984 about the Soviet Union: "We begin bombing in five minutes."
Mind you, offering an American hand--not to Kim's regime but to a post-Kim-regime North Korea--would not be a threat. It would present North Korea's 23 million people with at least a glimmer of a choice.
Were Obama to do that, he would stand the chance of engaging the minds, and quite possibly the hearts, of a great many people inside North Korea whom, right now, it is not safe even to name.
Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.com.