Americans think they have done everything short of war to stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear weapons state. To be sure, Washington has encouraged the sporadic moves by Seoul and Pyongyang to cooperate and grope toward confederation. The U.S. government has supported programs to feed the hungry and treat the sick in North Korea. However, Washington did nothing to help North Korean musicians to reciprocate the New York Philharmonic’s performance in Pyongyang in 2007. Instead, the United States has supported radio broadcasts to show North Korea’s people the nature of their rulers—part of what one specialist calls “hack and frack.”
The U.S. Treasury and U.S. diplomats at the United Nations have worked to tighten sanctions to choke Pyongyang’s weapons programs and penalize its rulers for their abuse of human rights. Washington has importuned Beijing to rein in its rogue client, though to limited effect. The Clinton administration considered a surgical strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities in 1994, but this option has become too dangerous to contemplate. As with the former Soviet Union, the United States has sought to contain a dangerous foe. Washington has maintained powerful forces in South Korea, Japan, and across the Pacific Ocean to reassure allies and deter North Korea aggression. None of this, however, has stopped the North from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
Has the United States fully explored a negotiated settlement of its differences with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)? The answer is both yes and no. President George H.W. Bush gave an impetus to negotiation when he withdrew all nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991. Within months, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to denuclearize the peninsula. Soon, however, each side accused the other of violating parts of the accord.
When signs mounted in 1994 that North Korea was building nuclear weapons, the Clinton administration mobilized to attack the North’s nuclear sites. Momentum toward war halted when former U.S. president Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang and drew up a plan with DPRK leader Kim Il-sung to freeze the North’s plutonium production in exchange for energy assistance and normalization of DPRK ties with the United States. Their draft accord soon became an “Agreed Framework” signed by top U.S. and DPRK diplomats. Republicans in Congress, however, balked at paying for energy assistance to the North and U.S. oil deliveries often arrived late. More troublesome, work on the two light water reactors promised to the North proceeded very slowly. Despite mutual suspicions, a top DPRK official came to the White House in 2000 and invited President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang. When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went there in his stead, she reported that Kim Jong-il appeared ready to make a deal on missiles as well as nuclear weapons.
Succeeding Clinton as president in 2001, George W. Bush broke off these exchanges and, soon placed North Korea on an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran. Soon, both Washington and Pyongyang denounced the Agreed Framework and the North resumed reprocessing plutonium. (Thanks to Pakistan, it could also enrich uranium, not specifically addressed in 1994). Despite all this, the Bush administration veered from its initial intransigence and promoted six-party talks with North Korea. These negotiations produced several joint statements that seemed to revive the 1994 principle of aid for arms control. Each accord withered, however, when buffeted by hardliners in Washington and Pyongyang.
Committed to negotiate with any adversary, Barack Obama’s administration focused on Iran (which had never tested a nuclear weapon) but also explored a deal with North Korea, which began testing nuclear devices in 2006. While Kim Jong-un was succeeding his father, Kim Jong-il, diplomats from North Korea and the United States seemed to reach another agreed framework on February 29, 2012. The United States committed to provide food aid in return for a halt on nuclear and long-range missile tests by the North. The deal, which was never formalized except in separate statements by each side, fell apart in April when the North attempted to launch a satellite on a three-stage rocket. Washington did not buy Pyongyang’s argument that its “space” rocket was not a missile for military use.
Feeling let down by Pyongyang, the Obama administration settled into a posture of “strategic patience.” Usually the United States demanded that the DPRK again commit to denuclearization before negotiations could resume. At other moments, Washington said only that negotiations—on a peace treaty and other matters–must include denuclearization. Thus, Secretary of State John Kerry stated on September 10, 2016 that Washington is willing to negotiate with North Korea, but only if Pyongyang agrees that the goal of those talks is for it to give up its weapons. But then Kerry softened—nearly contradicting himself—by stating “All that Kim Jong-un needs to do is say, ‘I am prepared to talk about denuclearization.’” President Obama did a similar two-step on October 16, 2015, as he spoke alongside South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Such ambivalence provokes distrust and sharpens the question of sequencing—who should go first and how.
The longer the present impasse continues, the more the DPRK leadership will oppose any dismantling of its advanced weaponry. Still, a conditional freeze of DPRK nuclear and missile development might benefit all sides. Stanford University nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker has suggested the United States and its partners pursue the “three nos” — no more bombs, no better bombs (no more nuclear testing), and no export of nuclear technology and materials — in return for one yes: American willingness to seriously address North Korea’s fundamental insecurity. A freeze would permit Pyongyang to claim a nuclear deterrent in addition to its conventional overkill poised to destroy Seoul. The freeze would be conditioned on an end to sanctions; a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice; and establishment of political and economic relations with the United States. Such a deal would entail risks and uncertainties, but no more than an untrammeled arms race in Northeast Asia.
Walter C. Clemens, Jr. is Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Boston University. He wrote North Korea and the World: Human Rights, Arms Control, and Strategies for Negotiation (University Press of Kentucky, 2016).