Much recent media discussion has focused on Chinese President Xi Jinping's successful trip to South Korea. It was widely remarked that Xi visited South Korea before North Korea, and this is often taken to suggest Chinese disapproval of the North Korean nuclear program.
This suggests a happy convergence between China and the United States on North Korea. For years, the U.S. and North Korea have been at loggerheads, not just over the nuclear program but much else. If China is genuinely breaking with Pyongyang, at least over the nuclear weapons program, there may be room for a Chinese-South Korean-U.S. joint position on North Korea. That would be a breakthrough.
The American relationship with North Korea has traditionally swung between two poles ― grudging recognition of its persistence, and an idealistic rejection of it as a brutal Stalinist throwback. There is no obvious solution to this dilemma. In recent years, President Barack Obama has channeled the former impulse with his notion of "strategic patience."
The U.S. now is simply waiting for North Korea to change, seeing no obvious reason to engage it when engagement so often leads to frustration. But there is no active effort to overthrow it or aggressively demonize it.
On the other hand, former President George W. Bush pursued the latter, idealistic course. Bush placed North Korea on the "axis of evil" and sought to pressure it into collapse. In this he was similar to former President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea. Lee was also a hawk who thought he could push North Korea toward collapse.
This raises the central dilemma of U.S.-North Korea relations ― Pyongyang's maddening persistence and the extraordinary incompatibility between it and the United States. While the U.S. has worked with dictatorships in the past, such as Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Park Chung-hee's South Korea, totalitarian North Korea is in a class of its own.
It is the world's last and worst Orwellian tyranny. It is more Stalinist than even Stalin's Soviet Union. Its human right record exceeds even the Taliban in its awfulness. It also has a demonstrated history of expansionism ― the invasion of 1950 ― and terrorism, such as the bombing of the South Korean cabinet visiting Myanmar (Burma) in 1983. On top of this, it engages in nuclear and missile technology proliferation, brews and sells narcotics, counterfeits foreign currencies, and so on.
The contrast with American political values of constitutional democracy is enormous, making it hard for American officials to accept North Korea as "just another country."
The American instinct is to reject North Korean sovereignty as a fraud, to see Pyongyang as a gangster fiefdom run by an insular, paranoid monarchy that should be unified as quickly as possible with South Korea.
South Korean conservatives often talk the same way, and this shared, if usually unspoken, rejection of North Korean legitimacy has been the cement of the American-South Korean relationship.
By contrast, the South Korean left has often looked for mutual accommodation strategies, which have frequently generated tension with the U.S. It is hard to imagine the U.S. ever accepting North Korea as a state like any other, opening an embassy there, encouraging tourism, and so on.
Yet North Korea continues to grind on, to the enormous surprise and frustration of just about everyone. Decades of predictions that North Korea would collapse have been embarrassingly wrong.
How North Korea continues to stumble along is a topic of intense debate, but neither the collapse of communism, the famines of the 1990s, nor the demonstrable effects of Arab Spring seem to have made a dent.
Leadership passed seamlessly from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. Hence, the U.S.-North Korean standoff looks set to continue for decades. There is no obvious "off-ramp" or "exit strategy" short of unlikely regime collapse.
Robert Kelly is a professor of political science at Pusan National University. He has visited North Korea. More of his work may be found at AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com.