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Negotiating with North Korea on its Nuclear Program

It is evident that a nuclear-armed North Korea is exceedingly detrimental to U.S. and allied security interests. It also appears obvious that a military attack on North Korea is highly unlikely to succeed in eliminating Pyongyang’s nuclear capability. Given the configuration of North Korean military forces, military action surely would entail unacceptable destruction to Seoul and adjacent areas of South Korea. Given Chinese support to North Korea, sanctions alone cannot succeed. However dim the prospect for success, the only realistic option is to pursue dialogue and negotiations with North Korea to try to persuade the regime to give up its nuclear weapons and its production facilities to produce them.

It clearly would have been preferable, and certainly more feasible, to reach agreement with North Korea before it succeeded in exploding a nuclear device in 2006. While North Korean intransigence and irresponsible behavior deserve much of the blame for the impasse, it also should be recognized that counter-productive U.S. actions towards North Korea undermined U.S. credibility and at the very least provided Pyongyang with ostensible justifications for its unwillingness to reach agreement to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

It therefore may be useful to review prior U.S. negotiating strategies and tactics to illustrate lessons that should instruct future efforts to try to achieve North Korean agreement to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

Diplomacy with rogue regimes is not appeasement.

When nations have conflicting positions on important matters of national interests, especially national security, it is prudent to attempt to negotiate agreements that can result in benefits to both sides. Engaging in dialogue or diplomacy with an opponent should not be regarded as unacceptable because it would “reward bad behavior.” Negotiations with North Korea were publicly characterized as such by high-level administration officials during President George W. Bush’s first term in office. This position in effect eliminated the only feasible opportunity to provide North Korea with positive incentives to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Serious overtures responsibly delivered should not be summarily rejected.

In the fall of 2002, Donald Gregg, former ambassador to South Korea during the Bush I presidency, and Donald Oberdorfer, former Washington Post reporter, delivered a message from Kim Jong IL to the White House: “If the United States recognizes our sovereignty and assures non-aggression, it is our view that we should be able to find a way to resolve the nuclear issue …. If the United States makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly.”

Not only did the administration ignore this and other overtures, but shortly thereafter it persuaded South Korea and Japan to join in stopping the delivery of fuel oil to North Korea as required by the 1994 Agreed Framework. Signed in October 1994, the Agreed Framework required Pyongyang to stop its nuclear weapons program in return for two nuclear power reactors and fuel oil from the United States until the reactors were completed. Soon after the message was ignored and deliveries of fuel oil terminated, North Korea ordered the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to leave the country, announced abrogation of the Agreed Framework and withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and began separating plutonium from its spent fuel rods. Inexplicably, the Bush administration did next to nothing in response to these actions.

It is not sensible for either party to insist on preconditions to talks that are in fact the desired final outcome.

During President Bush’s first term, it was the administration’s policy that a precondition to negotiating any concessions to North Korea was the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of its nuclear program. Needless to say, this demand was a non-starter, and it delayed any chance of progress in persuading North Korea to eliminate its nuclear program.

Commitments made during negotiations should be scrupulously honored to demonstrate good faith and permit further progress.

As part of the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze the North Korean nuclear weapons program, the U.S. committed, among other measures, to reduce barriers to trade and investment with North Korea within three months; to organize a consortium with South Korea and Japan to build two light water reactors in North Korea, the first to be completed by 2003; and to work toward normalization of relations. It was not until June of 2000 that the U.S. partially lifted its economic sanctions in a meaningless gesture to allow trade in consumer goods; the first indication of movement toward normalization of relations was Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s two-day visit to North Korea in October 2000; and concrete for the foundation of the first light water reactor was not poured until August 2002. In 2001, North Korea had threatened to re-start its reactor if the U.S did not provide compensation for the lengthy delay in building the first of the two light water reactors.

In February 2008, four months after the conclusion of the Phase II agreement in Six Party Talks, a U.S. delegation to North Korea headed by former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sig Hecker, issued a report of its findings. The report concluded that North Korea had received only a small fraction of the promised fuel oil and equipment to repair its electrical grid; the U.S. had not removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, as promised; and North Korean companies were still barred from commerce with the U.S. under the Trading with the Enemy Act, despite promises to remove that restriction. The report stated that North Korea was willing to carry out its obligations to disable key nuclear facilities once these issues were resolved.

The psychological aspects of pronouncements and actions during the negotiating process should not be ignored.

Gratuitous threats and insults can impede progress in negotiations, especially with a defensive country like North Korea with its poor economy and resultant sensibilities. In January 2002, President Bush anointed North Korea as a charter member of the “axis of evil.” The classified Nuclear Posture Review, leaked in March 2002, stated that the U.S. reserved the right to employ nuclear weapons “preemptively” against North Korea and four other states to prevent their developing nuclear weapons. This in effect provided North Korea with an additional incentive to develop a nuclear deterrent. On 13 March 2002, North Korea responded that it would not remain a passive onlooker to these threats, but would take strong countermeasures against them. In July 2002, in response to a North Korean request for a meeting of foreign ministers, President Bush refused, calling Kim Jong IL a “pygmy” and a “spoiled child at the dinner table,” comments hardly designed to foster North Korean receptivity and cooperation. Name calling is no substitute for diplomacy.

It is essential to focus on the main objective of negotiations and not allow lesser tactical considerations to block progress.

The fourth round of Six Party talks produced a milestone Joint Statement, signed on 19 September 2005, which included provisions for “coordinated steps … in a phased manner in line with the principle of ‘commitment for commitment, action for action’.” The U.S. affirmed in the statement that it would respect North Korean sovereignty, yet took action immediately thereafter to freeze about $25 million in North Korean deposits in Banco Delta Asia in Macao, which it accused of laundering ill-acquired North Korean funds. Regarding the action as an attack on its sovereignty, North Korea suspended its participation in the Six Party talks.

Pyongyang stated in April 2006 that it would return to the Six Party talks if the U.S. lifted its freeze on the funds in the Macao bank, but the U.S. instead tightened financial sanctions on North Korea. On 3 October 2006, Pyongyang warned that it would test a nuclear weapon; six days later, it conducted its first nuclear weapons test.

This action prompted the U.S. to be more forthcoming. Six Party talks resumed in February 2007 after a 16 month hiatus with parallel US-North Korea talks on the issue of frozen funds. The Six Parties signed an agreement on ways to implement the September 2005 Joint Statement and established five working groups to deal with various issues of concern, while the U.S. agreed to resolve the funds issue in 30 days as part of the parallel talks. On 10 April, the U.S. agreed to release the money; and finally, on 25 June, North Korea announced that the funds had been received. Freezing the funds accomplished nothing except impeding negotiations for some 20 months.

Vacillation and unilateral changes to agreements undermine a nation’s reputation and credibility in the negotiating process.

In October 2007, a joint statement was released on mutual commitments to be fulfilled during Phase II of the Six Party talks with North Korea. Among other actions, North Korea agreed to disclose full information on its plutonium program, but there were no provisions in the Phase II agreement for verifying the declaration. In May 2008, North Korea released extensive documentation of its plutonium program, as promised; and in June, the North submitted to Beijing a declaration of its nuclear inventory. Though questioned by some, North Korea’s claim that it had separated only 38 kilograms of plutonium was in the range of U.S. estimates. The U.S. then began steps to remove North Korea from its list of terrorism sponsoring states while Pyongyang imploded a cooling tower at its plutonium producing Yongbyon nuclear plant.

In a speech on 18 June 2002, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted U.S. intent to unilaterally alter the Phase II agreement by insisting on verification of the North Korean documentation before the U.S. would fulfill its Phase II commitments to de-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and relax sanctions on North Korea under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

In the following month, the U.S. proposed a stringent draft verification protocol covering all elements of North Korea’s nuclear programs, including uranium enrichment, and repeated its unwillingness to fulfill its Phase II commitments until the verification demands were met. On 1 October 2008, the U.S. submitted a less intrusive draft verification protocol; but several days later, the U.S. reversed itself again by insisting on the earlier and more stringent version as a condition for continuing the delivery of energy aid also promised in the Phase II agreement. Following delivery of heavy fuel oil in December, South Korea and Japan joined the U.S. in suspending fuel oil deliveries.

In April 2009, North Korea formally withdrew from the Six Party talks, ejected U.S. and International Atomic Energy Agency monitors and threatened to bolster its nuclear deterrent. On 25 May 2009, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test. It is impossible to know whether U.S. failure to adhere to its commitments was the proximate cause of subsequent North Korean actions, but it certainly provided North Korea with a justifiable pretext.

Where should we go from here?

It still appears obvious that the only way to contain, reduce and eventually eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs is through dialogue and diplomacy. No progress can be made with a continuation of a strategy of “strategic patience,” which is a formula for doing nothing to resolve the problem.

At the same time, the U.S. must defer to its ally South Korea, which has been the victim of North Korean attacks on its warship Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, killing a total of 50 South Koreans. Seoul has proposed direct talks with North Korea before it will agree to the resumption of Six Party talks. China has stated that Six Party format should be resumed after inter-Korean talks followed by bi-lateral talks between Washington and North Korea.

Yet it appears that the U.S. may be falling back to the policy of setting preconditions on North Korea before re-engaging in dialogue. On 16 April 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan called on North Korea to “demonstrate its genuine determination in denuclearization with actions,” without specifying what would be required. In March of this year a senior Obama administration official went so far as to state, without attribution, that since North Korea’s top priority is bi-lateral discussions with the U.S., we should refuse to accommodate any such request – a formula for blocking resumption of the Six Party talks.

It is clear that North Korea has engaged in a series of dangerous and provocative actions that caused the death of innocents and threatened peace on the Korean peninsula. Yet it also must be acknowledged that American actions in many cases have been counter-productive and have not helped to defuse dangerous situations or to lead to a negotiated solution on North Korea’s nuclear program.

It is important for the United States to open the channels of communication not only to pursue the objective of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula but also to prevent the tensions between the two Koreas from escalating into an armed conflict. Strategic patience is a formula for continued deadlock and danger.

*Lt. General Robert G. Gard, Jr. (USA, ret.) is Chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where his work focuses on nuclear nonproliferation, missile defense, Iraq, Afghanistan, military policy, nuclear terrorism, and related national security issues. Gard has written for well-known periodicals that focus on military and international affairs and lectured widely at U.S. and international universities and academic conferences.


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