The Debate

‘Strategic Patience’ with North Korea

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The Debate

‘Strategic Patience’ with North Korea

The U.S. needs to rethink its current position on reopening negotiations with Pyongyang.

‘Strategic Patience’ with North Korea
Credit: North Korea via Shutterstock

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program marches on. According to several reports, Pyongyang recently re-started its reactor to produce spent fuel from which weapons grade plutonium is reprocessed, upgraded its uranium enrichment facility, dug additional tunnels in its nuclear test site and expanded its missile launch facilities.

The United States has been urging China to bring its North Korean ally under control. At the end of October of this year, China’s Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs met in Washington, D.C. over a two-day period with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. The Chinese official confirmed North Korea’s willingness to resume negotiations without preconditions with the U.S. on its nuclear program, and urged it to accept promptly.

What was the response of the U.S. government? North Korea must offer “concrete proof” of its commitment to “irreversible” nuclear disarmament before it will agree to a resumption of negotiations. In other words, Pyongyang must concede to the final outcome the U.S. seeks as a precondition to its willingness even to enter negotiations with North Korea on its goals of easing sanctions and signing a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War.

This is reminiscent of past experience, from which the U.S. has apparently learned nothing.  From 2001 to 2005, the Bush administration set as a precondition to negotiations with Pyongyang the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of its nuclear program. Having nullified the Agreed Framework that froze North Korean plutonium production, the administration rejected overtures from Pyongyang and watched while it produced plutonium for several weapons and continued development of its facility to produce weapons grade uranium.

Finally, the Bush administration agreed to a sensible Six Party Joint Statement in September 2005 that provided for negotiations by “coordinated steps … in a phased manner in line with the principle of ‘commitment for commitment, action for action’.” But almost simultaneously, contrary to commitments the U.S. made in the Joint Statement to respect North Korean sovereignty and promote economic cooperation, it froze about $25 million of deposits Pyongyang maintained in a Macao bank for the next 20 months.

As a result, Pyongyang suspended participation in the Six Party talks; and on October 9, 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. This captured the administration’s attention and negotiations resumed. Following release of the funds, the Six Parties reached agreement in October 2007 on Phase II of implementing the Joint Statement. It included provisions for North Korea to disable the Yongbyong reactor and to disclose details of its nuclear weapons program.

By early June 2008, Pyongyang had fulfilled its Phase II commitments. Yet in a speech on June 18, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice disclosed that the United States was demanding to move “issues that were to be taken in Phase III, like verification, like access to the reactor, into Phase II” before it would implement our modest Phase II commitments. This brought negotiations to an abrupt halt once again.

Presidential candidate Obama had it right. He stated a willingness to negotiate, and noted that communicating with an adversary was not a reward but an instrument to protect American national interests. Yet in March 2009, the Obama administration decided that it would not fall victim to what it perceived as a previous cycle of provocation by Pyongyang, followed by extortion and rewards. Back again to strategic patience, tantamount to doing nothing.

Pyongyang formally withdrew from the Six Party talks in April 2009. Its second nuclear test followed shortly, on May 25. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton re-affirmed U.S. policy of strategic patience by stating on October 21, 2009: “current sanctions will not be relaxed until Pyongyang takes verifiable, irreversible steps toward complete denuclearization.” In February of this year, North Korea conducted its third and most successful nuclear test.

The only hope for achieving the objective of a nuclear free Korean Peninsula, or even reducing the threat posed by a nuclear armed North Korea, is through negotiations. Isolating and sanctioning Pyongyang increases its incentive to earn hard currency by selling weapons and nuclear technology on the black market. It is difficult to understand why the U.S. administration is willing to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear program but not with North Korea.

Lt. General Robert Gard (USA ret.) is chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a combat veteran of the Korean War and the former president of National Defense University.