"It's déjà vu all over again," as Yogi Berra once said. In June 1994 the United States and North Korea were negotiating a deal designed to halt and eventually eliminate the North's nuclear weapons program when Kim Il-sung died suddenly. The talks were recessed.
His son and heir-apparent Kim Jong-il was expected to take power, but the South Korean government at the time, hoping to foment unrest in North Korea, began a campaign to disparage and delegitimize the son, questioning his fitness to rule and predicting a power struggle instead of successful succession. By contrast, President Bill Clinton offered his condolences to the North Korean people on the death of their long-time leader.
Within a month, talks resumed and by October the Agreed Framework was signed. In 1997, after the United States was slow to live up to its obligations under the accord, North Korea began acquiring the means to enrich uranium, but did not resume the plutonium program until 2003 -- after the Bush administration scrapped the 1994 agreement over the enrichment acquisitions. It would be years before North Korea began enriching uranium in substantial quantities.
Now, with Kim Jong-il's abrupt death from a heart attack, the United States and North Korea are on the verge of completing another deal to halt the North's nuclear and missile programs. And once again, those who yearn for regime change are playing up the possibility of instability in the North and questioning his son's fitness to rule.
Instead of indulging in wishful thinking, the more prudent course is to reassure Pyongyang by offering condolences and then, in negotiations, test whether it is ready to halt its nuclear and missile programs.
Kim Jong-il was on the verge of concluding a deal with the United States that would have done just that. He was prepared to suspend its enrichment efforts at Yongbyon under international monitoring in return for US food aid -- a sign that Washington was not pursuing a hostile policy toward the North. That would open the way to resumption of six-party talks.
Kim Jong-il also said he was willing to observe a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests while negotiations proceed. That is important because Pyongyang says it has miniaturized a nuclear warhead, enabling it to be mounted on a missile, which it has yet to test. It is also developing new missiles whose reliability is far from assured without further test launches.
It should not be overlooked that Pyongyang was ready to negotiate bilaterally with Seoul to remove replacement fuel rods needed to restart its reactor at Yongbyon, which could generate more plutonium. It has yet to generate more plutonium in that nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which was shut down as part of an October 2007 six-party agreement.
A third round of bilateral talks was due to be announced this week. Washington and Seoul would be wise to resume these talks as soon as possible, and test whether Kim Jong-un is in a position to follow in his father's footsteps. Relying on that legacy would make it easier for him to secure support for the deal in Pyongyang.
Seoul may yet learn from its 1994 mistake. After two years of sowing doubts about the succession -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is under pressure from lawmakers in his own party, concerned about National Assembly elections in April, to offer condolences. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to sound reassuring but stopped short of offering condolences:
We are deeply concerned with the well-being of the North Korean people and our thoughts and prayers are with them during these difficult times. It is our hope that the new leadership of the DPRK will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by honoring North Korea's commitments, improving relations with its neighbors, and respecting the rights of its people. The United States stands ready to help the North Korean people and urges the new leadership to work with the international community to usher in a new era of peace, prosperity and lasting security on the Korean Peninsula.
The Obama administration has sound security reasons for trying to complete and faithfully implement the deal with North Korea. Unbounded nuclear arming by North Korea would have grave consequences for security in Northeast Asia. Already some in Seoul have been calling for the return of US nuclear weapons to the peninsula or worse -- resuming a South Korean nuclear weapons program that Washington succeeded in stopping twice before. An arms competition will also strengthen the hand of right-wing nationalists in Tokyo who distrust the United States and favor nuclear-arming.
Moving beyond simply suspending North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and finally dismantling them permanently will require the United States, South Korea, as well as Japan to end enmity by signing a peace treaty and normalizing political and economic relations.
Uncertainty about a North Korea under Kim Jong-un is endemic. The best way to reduce it is not to engage in idle speculation but to try diplomatic give-and-take, probing for information by making offers, and seeing whether the North accepts them and keeps its commitments.