What If U.S. and South Korea Won't Negotiate With North Korea?
Image Credit: Flickr - Creative Commons License (John Pavaleka)

What If U.S. and South Korea Won't Negotiate With North Korea?


Recently, I mentioned one possible reason North Korea has decided once again to use bellicose language to create tensions with most of East Asia and the United States. This theory posited that Pyongyang is using tough talk as a way to get Washington and Seoul back to the negotiating table to extract some new concessions like food or economic aid. Based on detailed historical scholarship, such a theory is worth considering.

Just today South Korea's unification minister explained that he hopes Pyongyang will come to the negotiating table concerning the Korean industrial complex at Kaesong.

"The Koreas should discuss ways of normalizing the industrial park through dialogue," Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae explained at a press conference.  "Pyongyang should come to the bargaining table immediately."

Yonhap did note that after the press conference “A unification official said the minister's statement is not Seoul's official proposal for talks.” However, it does appear Seoul could be open to the idea.

As for the United States, there has been some talk of negotiations, but the North may not like the topics of discussion and it would seem doubtful they would take a seat at the negotiating table. The Obama administration has outlined a policy of “strategic patience” where provocations from the North will not be rewarded.

“They have an option, and that option is to enter into negotiations for the denuclearization, which is China’s policy also, and to begin to focus on the needs of their people, which we also have made it clear we are prepared to help them with if they will bring their behavior in line with the United Nations and global community requirements” said Secretary of State John Kerry on last Tuesday.

Despite the idea that South Korea might be considering talks, what would there be to negotiate? What would North Korea want for a return to the status quo of just a few months ago? If North Korea is truly trying to create another crisis all to gain some new concession, it makes sense that based on current U.S. policy and South Korean anger that there very well could be no talks in the near future. The North has broken its promises countless times, just recently in last year’s leap-day deal. Why would Washington or Seoul make the same mistake again? Rewarding bad behavior is simply bad policy.

This leads to much larger questions: If North Korea is truly doing all of this to gain concessions to help sustain the regime, what happens if it has miscalculated and pushed a tired tactic too far? Put differently, what if Washington and Seoul are truly in no mood to deal for an extended period of time?

North Korea is quickly running out of viable threats it can make and therefore may have to move from words to some sort of physical action, like a missile or nuclear test. News reports suggest North Korea has missiles ready to launch for what appears to be a test firing.

While there is a natural temptation to explore what sort of deal could be made in an attempt to improve relations, history has shown time and time again that this well-worn path does not work. Pyongyang gets something it needs, tensions drop for a year or two, and then North Korea manufactures a crisis and we are back to square one all over again.

Washington and Seoul must break this pattern of behavior by offering no incentives – or negotiations — for what is considered normal behavior by any international standard. Rewarding bad behavior will not create any type of long-term peace on the Korean peninsula. There could be an opening in the future for talks after current tensions begin to cool, but to continue such a pattern is counterproductive and dangerous.

Here is where China comes into play. If the North can no longer extract concessions from others in East Asia, it may have to turn hat in hand to Beijing to gain immediate aid. It is well known that China subsidizes the regime’s existence through large amounts of fuel and food aid that it could not survive without. 

Could Beijing, using even greater leverage than it already has, end the current stand off?

While it is clear China has not fully enforced past UN Security Council sanctions on its long-time ally, Beijing clearly has a strong incentive to rein in North Korean provocations that could accidently spark a conflict no one wants. Also, China does not want to give the U.S. a pretext to deploy additional military systems  to the region or see Japan or South Korea beef up their own military might.  Most of all, Beijing does not want to see trilateral cooperation deepen between these powers, or indigenous nuclear weapon states.

Beijing may have even more of a role in the current situation than people realize if North Korea’s latest tantrum does not result in any later deal or goodies from the U.S. or South Korea.  The next few weeks should prove very interesting if Washington and Seoul take a hard line.

April 12, 2013 at 22:42

The threats of NK to its neighboring countries is one strategy in observing(more than 2 countries) how the U.S. respond to the situations.I think they are creating a situation that will mislead many nations (tension plus wrong decisions) because the back up of NK are eager to know how to control movements of defense systems of many countries. Notice the tensions in South China sea! I cannot tell exactly what are their moves if NK will receive the defensive moves of SK and Japan.It is important to consider the target areas of NK for Nuclear warheads and the target area for their own use. 

Blackmailers Should Not Be Appeased
April 12, 2013 at 22:38

I think Pyongyang miscalculated this time. Beijing is not going to be bothered at the its tantrums and threats.  Its brinksmanship will not work. "If you want to go to war with the US, by all means, go."

The marriage and goodwill is gone. Beijing couldn't care less what happens to it. Its blackmail will no longer work. "Devastate S Korea if you wish, KJU.  Its your brethren afterall. If its a bluff, you lose.  If its blackmail, and you go ahead, you will also be destroyed by your brethren and the US and Japan in turn."

"Pyongyang, you are just an ungrateful mate and friend. Your are lower than a earthworm and do not deserve our patience, forbearance, and material support. If all you know is how to make your mate or your friend look bad and give it a bad name each time, go and hang yourself.  We don't care.  You are just a spoilt and immature child who does not deserve our help. support and maintenance."

"Pity your children – the people of N Korea having a "parent" like you".  "A regime like you removed will be no loss to the world.  Why, we might even go in as part of the great powers game, and remove you before the Americans reach your doorstep in Pyongyang, and carve out N Korea between us and US/S Korea!"

April 12, 2013 at 22:33

Sorry, if I was unclear.  I was not advocating war.  I was simply examining whether it is better for the US to ignore or negotiate with North Korea.  Maybe you are suggesting that one of those strategies might lead to war.  I agree that is always a possibility.  I do not think it is likely.  Kim III is a traditional Strong Man.  It is rare (unknown?), in history, for such a leader to engage in a war of choice that will destroy his rule.  War will likely only be initiated by Kim if he feels his rule is under serious threat of imminent termination, and only then if he believes war will improve his situation. Take a look at any number of previous despots: Saddam Hussein, Shah Reza Pahlavi, Mussolini, Ngo Diem, Diem, Samoza.  None of them initiated war with a strong power, even in their last days.  Actually, if you could name me any despot that opted for a suicidal self-destructive ending, please let me know.  I'm not saying such a leader never existed, I just cannot name one.  And, please, not Hitler.

April 12, 2013 at 20:01

Three things could happen one they go to war, two get the money from the PRC, three the status quo remains and they will collapse. The fourth option that the US will enter into talks and give concessions for bad behavior, it is not going to happen. Look at the positve they have around 6 to 8 bombs. From the tests before and the lastest ones plus an upcoming one. They only have two or three left. Hence why the restart of the nuclear plant.

Leonard R.
April 12, 2013 at 18:05

Prof. Kazanis: "North Korea is quickly running out of viable threats it can make and therefore may have to move from words to some sort of physical action, like a missile or nuclear test. News reports suggest North Korea has missiles ready to launch for what appears to be a test firing."

How about another angle professor? Maybe the worst thing that could happen to KJU and his lunatic junta, would be for Seoul to petition for China's protection. Who would be left out in the cold then? Who would be left to face enraged mobs?

China would win. it would get a rich vasal state & wouldn't have to worry about refugees. They'd mostly go south to live Gangnam Style. Suth Korea would win because the government in Pyongyang would collapse. 

It probably won't happen because it is a sensible way to solve this problem. SK isn't much of an ally for the US. It's more trouble than it's worth really. SK and Japan don't fit into any kind of viable alliance. The Leonard R. solution would be a big win for everyone involved except Fatty Kim III. 

April 12, 2013 at 14:33

The idea of war on the Korean Peninsula is terrible, not for America or China, but South Korea.  The stakes are too high.  America would never dare escalate tensions because whilst it may suffer a handful of casualties in any Korean conflict, South Korea may immediately lose hundreds of thousands of civilians in the first few hours as the pretargeted artillery pieces and misiles hammer across the DMZ and into Seoul and other populated regions.

Past the conventional attacks, South Korea's nuclear power plants would be under threat from sabotage, along with the certainty the dying regime will use its chemical and nuclear stockpiles before perishing, potentially affecting millions in China, South Korea and Japan.  There's no full guarantee that the US can stop all such scenarios from occuring if such a conflict breaks out.  But it will get off relatively scot-free whilst East Asia is buried under corpses.  The backlash would be tremendous if such a war occured as a response to US escalation.  An accidental war that costs the lives of many non-Americans would mean much more to non-Americans. 

April 12, 2013 at 12:43

There are three theories about the NK crisis with regard to China.

Theory 1: China has run (is running) out of patience with NK. Perhaps there is some support still in the powerful PLA and amongst strategists, but basically it is turning into a bad thing.  China has been more stern, cut off some supplies, but is afraid to do much more as regime collapse in NK would create chaos (refugees in Jilin and Liaoning) and possible pro-US regime in the resulting demographic United Korea.

Theory 2: China is not at all displeased privately with NK. NK is a key piece on China's International Relations Chessboard. Hence the record high CHina-NK trade last year. Hence China not enforcing sanctions strongly, or shutting down cross border smuggling. Hence NK crises often occuring at very opportune times for China (ie when the whole region is getting annoyed at China's maritime claims.). NK crisis = everyone asks China for help, prepared to keep quiet about other things (RMB valuation, IP protection, Island rows and assertiveness). Isolated NK = exclusive access for Chinese companies. NK isolation = dependence on China = controlled by China.

Theory 3 = China divided on the issue, say with elements in the civilian government disagreeing with PLA and PLA supported civilian party members.  Basically combines elements from both 1&2. 


Theory 1 or 3 = we may have a problem this time. Kim may be just doing the normal strategy (first identified by George Friedman at Stratfor as the "Crazy, fearsome, cripple gambit.") and expecting some concessions very soon. It does seem like the US (and possibly SK) have finally woken up to this strategy and are defeating it by simply ignoring it.  Can Kim de-escalate without anything to show and still maintain whatever grip he may have on power in NK…who knows!

Theory 2 = China will allow (push) NK to go as far as possible but will not actually risk a military confrontation.  China's strategy would be to wait for the edge of the cliff, and then either let the world persuade China to show its leverage over NK by ending the crisis, or step in as the White Knight (if the rest of the world doesn't bite) and announce a Chinese initiative (diplomatic intervention) that de-escalates.


I lean towards Theory 2. Even after the killing of SKoreans, China still refused to outright blame NK. China has consistently watered down resolutions. This could be a bit of theory 3 coming into play too though.  If NK is not really crazy, then there will be a stand down within weeks, probably after another test or two.


April 12, 2013 at 10:25


Sanctions on China? I don't think so. Sanctions against one of the US's biggest trading partner, a country who holds more than a trillion dollars worth of debt?

Never gonna happen

April 12, 2013 at 07:21

But getting the South and especially the US to the negotiating table is the big prize.  There's a propaganda win for the North everytime the powerful US and the rival government in South Korea seen to be intimidated.  It feeds the divinity-like aura of the North's leader.  Going hat in hand to China is not an alternative for this need to appear powerful.

But, as for ignoring the North, I'd argue that as long as US intelligence is certain that the North poses no costly threat to the US, it is better to engage the North.  Negotiations with the North reassures US allies Japan and South Korea that their security is a US concern.  And if the North were to rely too heavily on China, then Japan and South Korea may begin to see closer engagement with China as the best way to neutralize Pyonyang.

April 12, 2013 at 05:59

The US should simply stop concerning themselves with North Korea. China already has all the leverage in this situation. The UN can appease Pyongyang if it chooses, but the entire situation is going to come down to what role China plays in all this.

April 12, 2013 at 04:53

China has been a very bad boy, we should be putting sanctions on them. If they dont deal with north korea we dont deal with them. 

April 12, 2013 at 01:49

If Beijing supposedly has a strong incentive to rein in N. Korea's behaviour why do you think they gave North Korea mobile missile launchers for ICBMs with which to threaten us? Do you ever think perhaps we have misjudged the situation time and time again and that's why none of our goals have been met as both China and N. Korea launch provocations never before seen?

Captain America
April 12, 2013 at 01:32

Ignore them & let China deal with them. make it China's problem.

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