Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

U.S. policy toward North Korea is crazy -- that is, if you believe the old chestnut that insanity means repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Each time the U.S. thinks North Korea has agreed to curtail its nuclear or missile programs, usually in return for some concession, the North either breaches or skips away from its obligations. Brinksmanship and rupture ensue, followed by a laborious and tentative rapprochement -- and then the cycle commences anew. It’s like watching a Bugs Bunny episode, with the U.S. in the role of Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam.

The latest iteration is the impending collapse of the Feb. 29 “Leap Day” agreement, in which North Korea committed to a “moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity” and the U.S. reaffirmed that it no longer had hostile intent toward the DPRK and promised to provide 240,000 metric tons of food assistance. Less than a month later, on March 16, the North announced plans to launch a “satellite” in mid-April, provoking outrage and alarm on the part of the U.S. and its allies, and a U.S. decision to put the food shipments on hold.

Here’s a prediction you can bet your 401(k) on: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will never give up its nuclear or missile programs. Some other regime might, but not this one. It’s got too much pride, prestige and paranoia invested in its arsenal. (Muammar Qaddafi’s fall after giving up his nuclear program has done nothing to convince the DPRK’s leaders that their approach is misguided.)

So what do we do? The world needs to try to promote positive change in North Korea faster than the regime can build up its capacity to wreak havoc. One way to start is to help and engage North Korea’s people.

Consider the U.S. decision to put plans for food assistance on hold. Although State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland maintained that there was no “linkage” between the provision of humanitarian aid and North Korea’s behavior, she also said the launch would “abrogate” the agreement. Huh? That sounds like “linkage” to us -- and not particularly humanitarian.

The U.S. smartly designed this food assistance program to focus on the dietary needs of the malnourished, rather than on grain that the regime could divert. It also insisted that the monthly food deliveries be monitored. Isn’t helping the poorest to survive, and having monitors on the ground to interact with North Koreans and see what’s going on, in the interests of the U.S.?

Provided the monitoring program works as intended -- something the U.S. can assess on a month-to-month basis -- we think Americans should fulfill their commitment. To those who say that the U.S. shouldn’t “reward” North Korea’s bad behavior, we say that humanitarian assistance, once you agree to deliver it, is just that.

President Barack Obama also faces the immediate challenge of forging a unified response to North Korea’s camouflaged missile test. Since the North Korean launch will commemorate what would have been the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, don’t look for a Pyongyang climbdown. Moreover, domestic politics will complicate the picture: Not only is Kim Jong Un’s succession march still in formation, but there are elections this year in South Korea, China and, of course, the U.S.

Last time around, after protests over its April 2009 missile test, North Korea withdrew from talks with the U.S. and its partners and conducted a nuclear test. Obama’s trip to South Korea next week for a nuclear security summit offers a canvas for a different narrative.

When Obama visits the demilitarized zone, he could go light on the “shoulder-to-shoulder” rhetoric in favor of a future vision of the peninsula at peace and the healing of Cold War wounds. The U.S. and its allies could also recognize the DPRK’s “right” to launch satellites (and call Pyongyang’s bluff) by offering commercial launch services that would not violate previous Security Council resolutions. And before the launch actually happens, the U.S. could work with China for a measured, and with luck unanimous, United Nations Security Council resolution that expresses global dismay without imposing sanctions.

The world can always return to the game of tit-for-tat if the kinder, gentler approach doesn’t work. In the meantime, it avoids giving the DPRK excuses for behaving badly and leaving the negotiating table.

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