It's not easy dealing with liars. Or maniacs. And Kim Jong Il is a lying maniac--a bizarro fascist who breaks his promises and starves his people. It would be nice if we could just denounce him, isolate him, ignore him.
But it's hard to ignore a bully with a bomb, and while the Bush Administration was freezing him out and calling him evil, the Dear Leader was going nuclear. Then North Korean border guards seized Euna Lee and Laura Ling, two journalists from Al Gore's TV network. The ensuing clamor for their release raised compelling questions. (Aside from, Al Gore has a TV network?) Is it naive to talk to totalitarian whack jobs like Kim, as Hillary Clinton argued during the 2008 campaign? Or is it counterproductive to stick our fingers in our ears, as Barack Obama replied?
Clinton ended up as Obama's Secretary of State, so on Aug. 3, her husband Bill--no slouch in the high-stakes-diplomacy department--flew to Pyongyang to execute Obama's strategy. On Aug. 4, after meeting with Kim, he took Lee and Ling home to California.
The greenroom generals of the neoconservative movement cried appeasement, their instinctive reaction to contact with thugs who are not our thugs. But you don't have to be part of the bombs-away brigade to wonder whether we should be giving lying maniacs what they want. It isn't going to stop their lying or their mania, and it makes us look hypocritical.
But hypocrisy is part of diplomacy. Refusing to engage with vicious nutcases like Kim can feel virtuous, but tarring our enemies as irredeemable warmongers can be self-fulfilling. We can't wish North Korea off the map, and it's a good sign that Kim was rational enough to modify his behavior to get what he wanted; it's an even better sign that he wanted to talk to us. This week, at least, the saber rattlers who claim there's never anything to gain from talking to rogue states should tell that to the families of Euna Lee and Laura Ling.