North Korea: Getting Back to Talks
North Korea: Getting Back to Talks
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Interpreting North Korea’s Failed Satellite Launch
Interpreting North Korea’s Failed Satellite Launch
Report / Asia 4 minutes

North Korea: Getting Back to Talks

The motivations for North Korea’s second nuclear test are, as with many of its actions, mostly impenetrable.

Executive Summary

The motivations for North Korea’s second nuclear test are, as with many of its actions, mostly impenetrable. It may be the latest step in an unrelenting drive to become a permanent nuclear state or it could be advertising nuclear wares to potential buyers. It may be driving up the price others will pay for the North to give up its weapons or it might be about ensuring that the military will accept whatever decision Kim Jong-il has made on his successor. Most likely, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program serves multiple purposes for the leadership. Whatever the rationale, there are no good options in response. Finding a way to resume talks on ending the nuclear program may appear to reward Pyongyang’s bad behaviour, but diplomacy is still the least bad option. At the same time, the UN Security Council’s strong and united condemnation of the test in Resolution 1874 must be enforced, while containment of proliferation and deterrence of North Korean provocations need to be boosted.

Getting the North Koreans back to the table may not be easy; not only have they tested nuclear explosive devices and missiles, but they have said that the Six-Party Talks are dead, they will no longer respect the Korean War armistice, and any sanctions imposed by the UN will be treated as a declaration of war. Much of this is the normal overheated rhetoric that Pyongyang often produces, but it would be a mistake to put the issue on the back burner. Getting North Korea back to talks will require significant changes in the way the portfolio is handled in Washington, including a high-level approach by the U.S., if and when there appears to be a prospect, however uncertain, that the North is willing to engage seriously.

The trip to key capitals undertaken in the first week of June by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Special Representative for North Korea Policy Ambassador Stephen Bosworth suggests Washington may be seriously reviewing its assessments of Pyongyang’s objectives and its own alternatives. The need to do so was underlined on 8 June, when the North, in another provocative action, sentenced two U.S. journalists it had detained in its border area three months earlier to twelve years hard labour.

The temptation will be to punish North Korea with mostly ineffectual multilateral sanctions and then wait for the crisis to blow over, but there are good reasons to take up the challenge now:

  • A likely succession in North Korea could unleash instability, or it could result in a much more belligerent or isolated military regime. The transfer of power after Kim Jong-il is far less clear than when his father died in 1994.
  • An isolated North Korea under sanctions will be more, not less, likely to sell weapons or technology for hard currency. Given that its clients have been in the Middle East and South Asia, this is likely to create further problems in highly insecure areas.
  • The nuclear test may have narrowed the cracks that were appearing among the countries in the Six-Party Talks, with China and Russia more likely to press the North on coming to an agreement.
  • The longer the issue is left to fester, the greater the strains on the alliances, the risk to the balances that have kept the peace in North East Asia for decades, the advances the North will make in developing warheads and missiles and the likelihood proliferation will occur.

The Six-Party Talks faltered in December 2008 on issues of sequencing and verification. These issues can be resolved, and the talks need to resume and address them. But a bolder approach is also needed that will be less likely to become enmeshed in the bilateral concerns that participants have with the North. While still preserving the Six-Party framework, not least because of its potential utility as a mechanism for addressing North East Asian security issues more generally, the U.S. needs to talk to Pyongyang directly at the highest levels. At best this could result in a deal; at worst it might shed some light on North Korea’s motivations and aspirations. High-level engagement may seem to be rewarding bad behaviour, but it is also the only way any agreement is likely to be reached.

While any direct bilateral talks should continue the “actions for actions” model established in the multilateral forum, a U.S. negotiator should not be entirely limited by that approach. The views of North Korea’s leadership, both military and civilian, are shaped by the Korean War and by a deep insecurity about the U.S. in particular and the outside world in general. Assuaging that insecurity by formally ending the Korean War, establishing liaison offices and eventually diplomatic relations and providing greater humanitarian aid would cost little but would build significant confidence. Bilateral contacts in the realm of education, sports, arts and sciences would also be helpful.

The U.S. administration needs to avoid the pitfalls of its predecessors. Interminable battles over policy, with the hesitations and mixed signals they produce, will only undermine diplomacy. Putting implementation on hold while waiting for North Korea to collapse has always been a mistake. Any strategy will need to be sold to Congress but not at the price of giving any primacy to a military response. It needs to coordinate closely with Japan and South Korea, but it must also persuade its allies that solely bilateral concerns cannot be allowed to hold up the key issue of North Korea’s denuclearisation. While diplomacy needs to be backed up by the most effective possible deterrence and containment, it is still the best option.

Seoul/Brussels, 18 June 2009

This Policy Report is published simultaneously with two Crisis Group Background Reports, North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs and North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs and should be read in conjunction with them.

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