How to Play North Korea Long Game

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How to Play North Korea Long Game

North Korea is showing signs of wanting to get back to talks. But without any changes to its behaviour, it might be better to focus on the next generation.

The well-choreographed pas de deux of South Korean and North Korean nuclear negotiators in Bali, and the visit of North Korea’s Senior Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan to New York, appear to have rekindled hopes for dialogue with North Korea and a resumption of Six-Party Talks. Pardon my scepticism, though, but haven’t we seen this movie before?     

Looking over the record of the past two decades, it’s fair to ask what we’d talk about now that we haven’t talked about before. Three successive administrations have posed essentially the same simple binary choice to Pyongyang:  butter or guns? And North Korea’s consistent response has been to avoid making the choice and to attempt to go for both:  to be both a strong and prosperous country (in North Korean terms) and one with a nuclear capability.

As to the strong and prosperous country, looking ahead to 2012, North Korea appears to be betting on continuing Chinese support. Recently, North Korea and China announced plans for the joint development of special economic zones, this time with the clear commitment and underwriting of Beijing. Last month, China’s Minister of Commerce and North Korea’s Jang Song-taek participated in groundbreaking ceremonies at one of the new SEZs. During recent conversations in Beijing, Chinese analysts and academics were clear that China’s priority in North Korea is stability through the transition; this means back-stopping the North Korean economy. Absent a miraculous immaculate denuclearization, Beijing’s concerns are focused elsewhere in North Korea.

At the same time, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes are up and running unimpeded and, as a result, the risks of proliferation grow daily. Last year, the 2010 US Quadrennial Defence Review warned of the possible rapid proliferation of WMD material, weapons and technology from weak or failing states as posing a direct physical threat to the United States. In January, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told his Chinese counterpart that North Korea’s missile programme could, in the near future, pose a direct threat to the United States.  As my former colleague at the National Defence University, Ferial Saeed, observed in her paper on Nuclear Diplomacy toward North Korea and Iran, the gap between strategic patience and the warning of the 2010 QDR ‘is striking.’

Meanwhile, North Korea, beyond announcing that it is prepared unconditionally to return to the Six-Party Talks – which really is conditioned on our not asking for an apology for the Cheonan sinking and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island – has shown little change in its behaviour. Indeed, just recently, by disclosing secret South Korean initiatives, it blew up any chance for a South-North summit. (Actually, Pyongyang’s closing off of a South-North Summit and pivoting to the United States is a tried and true North Korean stratagem for marginalizing Seoul).

Have the meetings in Bali and New York advanced diplomacy to the point where we should consider a mid-course correction from strategic patience, and if so, why? To what end? What benefits are attainable and at what cost?

As for why, several reasons suggest themselves: the lack of success  in constraining North Korea’s nuclear programme, the growing risks of proliferation, the need to discourage  North Korean provocations,  or  encourage positive, responsible behaviour, and the need to  address North Korea’s security paranoia.

Clearly, the longer North Korea continues to assert its status as a nuclear weapon state, the more difficult it will be to realize complete denuclearization. If we remain committed to a denuclearized North Korea as an end state – and I can’t imagine that objective changing – is it possible, as Saeed asks, to attain  that objective through a staged process, that, in the first phase, would involve capping the North Korean nuclear arsenal, dismantling of the Yongbyon reactor, and securing intrusive international IAEA oversight over all nuclear materials and facilities?  

In return, North Korea would receive humanitarian aid, but ‘conditioned on consultations with the World on requirements to transition to development aid and private investment.’ The objective would be ‘to break the cycle of paying North Korea repeatedly for the same threat, so that aid is not traded solely for nuclear commitments but also for economic progress.’

In a second, undoubtedly distant, phase, North Korea would surrender its nuclear arsenal, rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and normalize relations with the United States. But can we really get there from here, and at what cost? 

Both domestically and internationally, the degree of difficulty of the US securing critical support from South Korea, which faces its own presidential election next year, could be measured as a ‘Ten Plus’ in Olympic high diving terms.  And the cost to US credibility in South Korea and Japan in terms of support for the NPT and the global non-proliferation regime could prove incalculable. For the United States to go it alone would reward North Korea’s longstanding efforts to drive deep wedges into those alliances.

We can’t deny the risks posed by North Korea’s nuclear programme, but we can manage them by maintaining strong alliance coordination and cohesion with Seoul and Tokyo by reinforcing our commitment to deterrence and defence, by continuing to work with China and Russia, and by being willing to explore possible openings with North Korea. 

However strained our strategic patience may be, we shouldn’t be strategically impatient either.   Despite anyone’s best efforts, some problems can’t be solved when we want, in the way we want; they simply have to be managed.

But what about engagement and dialogue as instruments for encouraging responsible North Korean behaviour and minimizing the risks of future provocations? Could this work?

The assumption here is that if we are in dialogue, North Korea will refrain from provocative behaviour.  Starting from Churchill’s premise that talk is better than conflict, it isn’t clear that dialogue with North Korea has constrained Pyongyang’s behaviour.  The August 1998 Taepodong test came in the middle of negotiations on a missile moratorium. The 2006 nuclear and missile tests came a year after Pyongyang signed the September 2005 Joint Statement committing the North to denuclearization.  And the 2009 test came after the Obama administration had announced it was prepared to extend an open hand to states like North Korea.

As for Cheonan and Yeonpyeong, the incidents appear to be motivated by internal North Korean political dynamics – payback in the case of the Cheonan sinking, and succession politics in the case of the island attack.  Future provocations should therefore be expected, whether we have dialogue or not, because the regime uses such actions to sustain a level of external crisis and rally public support. Succession, accompanied by a generational shift in the power structure, is a particularly sensitive time, as will be the death of Kim Jong-il.

As for curing North Korea of its security paranoia, Pyongyang’s answer since the beginning of the Obama administration has been to prescribe two major bromides: that the United States recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and that Washington deal with the ‘root cause’ of the nuclear problem – its hostility toward North Korea – and eliminate that malevolence by concluding a peace treaty as a prerequisite for denuclearization.  

This was reiterated by North Korean news agency KNCA as Kim Kye Gwan was on his way to New York. In addressing mutual security concerns, we are on clearly divergent paths. The North Korean approach is a singular one, dismissing decades of mutual mistrust, suspicion, and enmity, and focusing on the magic bullet of a peace treaty with the United States.  Concluding a peace treaty would, for Pyongyang, usher in peace regime nirvana on the Peninsula, which would assuage North Korea’s security concerns by obviating the need for a US-South Korea alliance or a US presence on the Peninsula and, in the process, marginalize South Korea.

There is another path – a step-by-step process or to-do list that ends in, rather than begins with, a peace regime. This would start with North Korea’s denuclearization – it’s difficult to conceive of a peace regime with a nuclear armed North Korea. It would also involve implementing the historic 1992 North-South Basic Agreement; replacing the Armistice with either a political agreement or peace treaty to which South Korea would be a signatory. This would normalize relations on the Peninsula and end North Korea’s longstanding efforts to delegitimize South Korea.

This is a process that aims at building a peace regime from the bottom-up.  The North Korean approach, in contrast, is the diplomatic equivalent of attempting to build a house from the roof down – it simply lacks a foundation. The United States shouldn’t hesitate to explore openings with Pyongyang, but they should be well coordinated with Seoul and Tokyo. Moreover, we should keep expectations modest – health, education, people-to-people exchanges and confidence building measures provide low-profile entry points.  Stanford University’s medical school, for example, is engaged with Chinese and North Korean counterparts in a dialogue on tuberculosis management – a HEW channel could be explored with North Korean health officials.

Meanwhile, a handful of North Korean students are now studying in the United States; the offer should be made to increase that number. (Where better to learn market economics than at the Becker-Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago?) 

As for confidence building, the confidence building measures outlined in the Basic Agreement would go a long way toward creating a real peace regime on the Peninsula. And, even less controversial, cultural and sport exchanges can be encouraged.  The Los Angeles Lakers in Pyongyang?  Why Not?  Kim Jong-un is reported to be a basketball fan.  How about Ping-Pong diplomacy with a bigger ball?

Yet again, our expectations should be modest.  Expecting ‘new and improved, active and comprehensive engagement’ will now do the trick represents, like third and fourth marriages, a triumph of hope over experience. At the macro-level, North Korea has evidenced little interest in buying what we’ve been selling – economic opening, reform and prosperity in exchange for its nuclear weapons. But modest initiatives can at least begin to suggest a different future to the next generation of North Korean leadership.


James J. Przystup is a Senior Fellow at  the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared at CSIS Pacnet.