"The courage to be patient" is how President Dwight D. Eisenhower publicly rejected demands in 1954 for military action against China, during the height of the Cold War. Ike's wise counsel then provides good guidance now.
This week, North Korea's official news agency and the U.S. State Department announced that Pyongyang is suspending nuclear-weapons tests and uranium enrichment, and permitting nuclear inspections. This may indicate flexibility by Kim Jong Un, the North's young new leader.
The Obama administration rightly is cautious, saying little on the record beyond the official State Department announcement. The White House has described this apparent progress in cooling tensions as "important, if limited."
We have been down this road before. The Clinton administration spearheaded an effort to freeze and dismantle the nuclear-weapons program, to include food and fuel aid for the North. However, Republican leaders refused to support the agreement after winning both houses of Congress in 1994.
In October 2006 and May 2009, North Korea conducted nuclear tests. The nature of the explosions was hard to evaluate from a distance, but undeniably nuclear materials were involved.
The second nuclear test, deemed particularly provocative, occurred not only on Memorial Day in the U.S. but during mourning in South Korea for former President Roh Moo-hyun, who had committed suicide.
In April 2009, after great public fanfare, Pyongyang test-launched a Taepodong 2 missile described as capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The projectile fell into the ocean after passing over Japan. The device was an improved version of one tested on July 4, 2006 -- Independence Day in the United States.
The Bush administration gave emphasis to six-power diplomacy involving the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia plus the U.S., after earlier stressing a unilateral stance in foreign policy. This dramatic reversal provided strong testimony for the value of trying collectively to reach nuclear accord with the isolated communist state. The Obama administration has continued the multilateral emphasis.
Economic leverage has been important, though not sufficient. In 2007, Washington declared Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau a renegade institution assisting Pyongyang's illegal black-market activities. U.S. businesses were banned from dealing with BDA, and Macau government authorities froze $25 million in North Korean funds.
Washington offered to release the funds to Pyongyang in return for nuclear restraint. A transfer of funds eventually was carried out, reportedly with assistance from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Russian financial institutions.
History encourages persistence, despite setbacks. The Korean War took an estimated 1 million lives, transformed the Cold War into a global conflict and forced President Harry Truman from office. The successor Eisenhower administration secured an armistice ending the war only after massive bombing of the North and the threat to use nuclear weapons.
When Eisenhower made the statement emphasizing patience, communist China had just "convicted" 13 U.S. pilots shot down during the Korean War of espionage and commenced shelling the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, held by Nationalist Chinese forces based in Taiwan. The pilots eventually were freed, and shelling of the islands waned.
In recent years, Pyongyang has become experienced at creating crisis, then stepping back from the brink. For Seoul and Washington, this has been arduous.
Nevertheless, war has been averted and regional stability maintained. Right now, patience is in order.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org