The Koreas

A More ‘Flexible’ US Approach to North Korea?

The United States may be willing to negotiate with North Korea with fewer preconditions.

A More ‘Flexible’ US Approach to North Korea?
Credit: Astrelok/

We’ve long heard murmurings of a return to negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear programChina has suggested returning to talks unconditionally, whereas top U.S. officials have repeatedly emphasized that no negotiations can take place without North Korea making a bona fide gesture that suggests that it will entertain the prospect of giving up parts of its nuclear weapons program. The most clear statement of what the United States was looking for included, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel noted last year, an acceptance of the 2005 Six-Party Talks joint statement.

On Monday, reports emerged citing comments by Sydney Seiler, the U.S. special envoy for the Six-Party Talks (which have been on hold since they disintegrated in 2009), noting that the United States may be open to approaching the North Korean regime with fewer preconditions. Specifically, Seiler told reporters in South Korea that the recent nuclear deal with Iran demonstrates that “value and possibilities that negotiation bring.” Noting the possibility of the Iran deal serving as a model for North Korea, Seiler continued: “[The Iran deal] demonstrates again our willingness, when we have a willing counterpart, and it demonstrates our flexibility when the DPRK makes a decision that it wants to take a different path,” he added.

Seiler’s remarks don’t suggest a change in U.S. policy—indeed, they are too ambiguous to conclude that “a different path” may be for North Korea—but they certainly don’t reflect the strict conditionality top U.S. diplomats have mentioned in the past. The ambassador’s remarks also seem to suggest that negotiations are possible even while North Korea continues to call itself a nuclear weapon state (the United States has long seen any official bilateral negotiation with North Korea as an implicit acceptance of this status). I don’t seriously expect any sort of U.S.-North Korea rapprochement over the latter’s nuclear program anytime soon—not least because of the political capital the Obama administration has already spent on the Iran deal, but also because Kim Jong-un simply shows no signs of reversing course on the country’s fast-advancing nuclear program.

As an aside, comparisons between the United States’ experience negotiating with North Korea and Iran are regularly brought up by commentators, but unfortunately, the differences between these two cases considerably outweigh any superficial similarities (the Carnegie Endowment on International Peace’s George Perkovich has, perhaps, the most thorough analysis of this issue). Indeed, the conditions that lead to the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea are largely inapplicable in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.

For what it’s worth, North Korea rejected any prospect of doing an Iran-style deal with the United States. In a statement carried by the reclusive state’s official news agency, an unidentified foreign ministry spokesman noted that the country’s nuclear weapon program was “not a plaything to be put on the negotiating table.” As far as Kim Jong-un’s regime is concerned, nuclear diplomacy is simply not in the cards for the moment.