North Korea: Tactics vs Strategy


Yesterday, the United States and North Korea announced that they had come to a series of initial agreements after bilateral meetings on February 23 and 24 in Beijing. The agreement stated that North Korea would suspend nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment, and allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in the Yongbyon facilities to confirm disablement of the 5-MW reactor. They would also receive 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance from the United States, with the prospect of additional assistance based on continued need. These initial steps offer important indications about the North Korean regime, as well as raising further questions and tasks for the U.S.

Given that the Kim Jong-un regime is only two months old, it’s noteworthy that it agreed to the same terms as those negotiated under U.S. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth prior to Kim Jong-il’s death. This indicates that the new Kim regime is mainly focused on legitimacy. 

What does that mean? It implies that North Korea is capable of making major foreign policy decisions, and is determined to let the international community know about their quick decision-making capacity. After his meetings with North Korean First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Gye Gwan, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies observed a significant amount of continuity in North Korea’s tone, style, and issues of focus. By agreeing to what some consider a surprisingly conciliatory outcome, the new Kim regime made its foreign policy debut with the underlying message that things are under control. This also confirms that North Korea’s chief mission is to achieve stability and continuity in the midst of the leadership transition by rapidly improving relations with the United States. For the U.S., South Korea, and the international community, it should be seen as progress that North Korea’s first big foreign policy decision was engagement, not provocation. 

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Second, North Korea gains domestic legitimacy through food. The 240,000 metric tons of U.S. nutritional assistance combined with reported food aid from China may give North Korea enough resources to appease ordinary North Koreans in preparation for the 100th birthday celebration of Kim Il-sung on April 15. U.S. official statements also specified that there’s the potential to increase the amount of nutritional assistance based on continued need. 

Some experts say that the U.S. gained more than it gave, given that its ultimate objective is denuclearization, and the initial undertakings after the bilateral discussions primarily dealt with the moratorium of North Korea’s nuclear activities.  It’s likely that North Korea negotiated for three things: food, lifting of sanctions, and a peace treaty. In this regard, the U.S. granted just one out of three. Additionally, the United States gained a valuable opportunity to experience the Kim Jong-un regime’s priorities, style, and threshold for negotiations. 

But although the initial steps are positive, they’re not a breakthrough, and there’s much for the U.S. to do. First and foremost, it will have to define a process and mechanism that minimizes any rollback from North Korea. For example, will the United States deliver its nutritional assistance first and then send in the IAEA inspectors, or vice versa? What will the U.S. do when North Korea demands nutritional assistance before they deliver on the nuclear moratorium? 

In addition, the issue of light water reactors will need to be folded into the process. Current negotiations focused on the moratorium of the uranium enrichment program without fleshing out the issue of light water reactors. Third, technicalities of the verification and monitoring process must be defined so that inspectors are able to gain proper access to North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

On top of this, the U.S. must find a multilateral framework for dealing with North Korea before the Six-Party Talks can be resumed. Although bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea can be valuable, it’s not in U.S. interests to inadvertently alienate South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. Finally, the U.S. needs to have a plan concerning sanctions. If and when nutritional assistance is fully and properly delivered to the intended North Korean citizens and the moratorium on nuclear program is achieved, the Kim regime will demand the lifting of U.S. and U.N. sanctions against North Korea. If there’s a political will to encourage private sector exchanges in the near future, the U.S. should be ready to deal with the sanctions issue. 

Ultimately, the announcement by the U.S. and North Korea is tactical progress given that no one knew what would actually come out of the bilateral talks in Beijing. On the other hand, it’s also important to remember that current undertakings are easily reversible by North Korea without the creation of proper mechanisms, architecture, and the involvement of other parties such as South Korea and China.

Now that the first task tactical step has been taken, the next stages should be planned out strategically.

Sarah K. Yun is Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington.

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