The Failure to Negotiate with North Korea

| Joseph DeTrani
Joseph DeTrani
Former Director of the National Counterproliferation Center

In our graduate school, we emphasize the importance of understanding the history, culture, and political system of an adversary, which often gives you a better appreciation of how they view strategic issues of geopolitical concern.  When the students discuss tension with North Korea, we note the 2000 years of recorded history in Korea, with over 900 invasions and foreign occupation by China, Mongolia, and Japan, which continued until 1945, with the end of World War Two. The message is clear: In North Korea’s case, security and sovereignty are important.

Since 2008, when formal negotiations with North Korea ceased, there has been minimal official dialogue with North Korea.  We had the 2009 visit to North Korea of former President Bill Clinton who returned with two American journalists detained in North Korea, and the 2015 visit of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper who returned with two Americans who also were detained in North Korea.  From all indications, the visits succeeded in gaining the release of those Americans, but apparently there was little if any geopolitical dialogue with North Korea’s leadership during these visits.  

The only other noteworthy interaction with North Korea was the failed February 29, 2012 Leap Day Agreement with North Korea, when the new Kim Jong-un government launched a satellite in April 2012, despite an agreement with the U.S. to halt all missile launches and nuclear tests.  North Korea maintained that the agreement did not include satellite rocket launches, an issue North Korea has consistently maintained is an inalienable sovereign right of all nations.

In late October 2016, a few colleagues and I participated in an unofficial meeting with North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister and a few of his colleagues.  The two days of discussions in Kuala Lumpur were frank and friendly.  We told our North Korean interlocutors that it was our view that North Korea would never be accepted as a nuclear weapons state, and that it was in North Korea’s interest to return to the September 2005 Joint Statement that committed North Korea to complete and verifiable denuclearization in return for security assurances, economic development assistance, eventual provision of Light Water Reactors for civilian nuclear power, and a path to a more normal diplomatic relationship with the U.S. 

We suggested that North Korea agree to unconditional official exploratory talks with U.S.  That the North be open to a freeze on nuclear tests, missile launches, and fissile material production, in return for security assurances and a discussion of other related issues, to include a peace treaty.  Their response was that the U.S. has consistently insisted on conditional talks, requiring that North Korea first agree to comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization and take steps to implement this commitment, prior to the U.S. sitting down with the North for any type of exploratory discussion.  Our North Korean interlocutors said Pyongyang would never agree to exploratory talks with such conditions.

The North Korean delegation made it clear that Pyongyang wanted normal diplomatic relations with the U.S., but they were not prepared to commit to denuclearization.  They said nuclear weapons are their only security guarantee, citing Libya as a recent example of what could happen if they gave up their so-called nuclear deterrence.  They argued that recent joint U.S.- ROK (South Korea) military exercises were upgraded and had introduced strategic bombers, with the goal of securing regime change in North Korea.

Without getting too deeply into the particulars, it’s obvious that something has to be done to address the North Korean nuclear issue.  Personally, I believe North Korea, which has nuclear weapons, is capable of miniaturizing and mating these nuclear weapons to missile delivery systems.  I also believe that North Korea, within the next few years, will be able to test launch an ICBM capable of reaching the whole of the U.S., thus making North Korea an existential nuclear threat to the U.S., similar to the threat they now pose to our allies in South Korea and Japan.

Given these developments, why wouldn’t the U.S. be willing to enter unconditional exploratory talks with North Korea to determine if there is a path to returning to the Joint Denuclearization Statement of September 2005?  If there is, and if North Korea would be willing to halt all nuclear tests, missile launches and fissile material production in return for security assurances and other related deliverables, wouldn’t the region and the international community be more secure?  If despite these overtures for a peaceful, negotiated resolution, North Korea persists with its nuclear tests and missile launches, then the U.S., its allies, and the international community must ensure that Pyongyang understands that all options are on the table to prevent North Korea from using or proliferating these nuclear weapons.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent any government department or agency.

The Author is Joseph DeTrani

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is former Special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea and the U.S. Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO), as well as former CIA director of East Asia Operations. He later served as the Associate Director of National Intelligence and Mission Manager for North Korea and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, while also serving as a Special Adviser to the Director of National Intelligence. Ambassador DeTrani is... Read More

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