If Pyongyang won’t disarm, what’s the point of talks?

Two think-pieces published last week, one by Sahand Moaref in The Diplomat and one by Patrick Cronin in Beyond Parallel, have encouraged me to write down some thoughts in response the best questions about North Korea sanctions, which have to do with our ultimate objectives, and how we can use sanctions relief as a diplomatic inducement without throwing away our leverage (today’s post is the first installment of those thoughts). There are also legitimate questions about our objectives. Is it to extract a diplomatic solution, or is it to induce the collapse the regime?

The answer, of course, is “yes.” No one need convince me of the chaos and risk that would follow regime collapse in North Korea, although where we’re headed now — a North Korea that extorts the U.S., South Korea, and Japan with impunity, that controls what films we can see, and that proliferates weapons of mass destruction to sponsors of terrorism without fear of consequence, scares me vastly more.

Of course, everyone would still prefer to see a diplomatic solution, but our diplomats’ past approaches to achieving one have failed. As those approaches failed over the course of decades, our best policy options ran out. The simple, hard truth may be that Kim Jong-un is existentially tied to both the possession of nuclear weapons and the use of those weapons to threaten the United States and its allies. We’re now left to choose between alternatives that are merely unlikely and those that are delusional.

What if there is simply no plausible diplomatic strategy to talk Kim Jong-un out of his nukes?

In fact, almost no one still believes that Pyongyang, at least as its leadership is presently constituted and disposed, is likely to agree to give up its nuclear weapons, its missiles, or its other offensive firepower along the DMZ that threatens South Korea. How do we know? Not only because Pyongyang says so constantly — North Korea says a lot of things we don’t necessarily believe, after all — but because it has made the possession of nuclear weapons an essential element of its nationalist propaganda and of Kim Jong-un’s personal legitimacy. It has even amended its constitution to call itself a nuclear state.

Experts can call for talks all they want, but they should expect us to ask in return, “Talk about what, exactly?”

Do advocates of this approach believe that North Korea doesn’t really mean what it says, and that it actually would disarm for the right price? This strikes me as both baseless and delusional. And by paying “the right price” before North Korea’s disarmament can be assured, we’d have to sacrifice the concerted international pressure that is our last slender hope for a negotiated disarmament of North Korea.

Do they believe that a combination of engagement, confidence-building, and starting a long diplomatic process with less ambitious diplomatic goals (a freeze) would eventually build up to complete disarmament? How long would this process take? How many nuclear weapons would North Korea build during this long process? How could we possibly hope to verify a freeze, or any other intermediate agreement? Would North Korea be more or less likely to sign up for the eventual goal — full disarmament — after having purchased the time to build an arsenal that would, by then, be both extensive and effective? And of course, we’ve tried variations of this approach for years; all have been conclusive failures. (See, e.g., the Leap Day deal, the Sunshine Policy). Proponents of this approach are now obligated to explain why this time would be different.

Or do they think the world could learn to live with a “responsible” nuclear North Korea if we simply reduced tensions with Pyongyang? This proposition is the very operational definition of appeasement, and is the most dangerously delusional of all. Calls for a “peace treaty” with North Korea are a variation of this idea that’s currently popular with the extreme left (and coincidentally, in Pyongyang). What proponents of this approach downplay is the certainty that during this necessarily extended negotiation process, Pyongyang would demand a series of preconditions — the lifting of sanctions, the cancellation of military exercises, the withdrawal of anti-missile defenses, the suppression of diplomatic (and perhaps, private) criticism of Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity, and favorable regime-sustaining trade and subsidies. Because this would throw away all the leverage we have to disarm Pyongyang, it would amount to a de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power. Giving Pyongyang these preconditions would also strengthen the regime domestically while putting Pyongyang in a strong position to gain nuclear hegemony over Seoul, finlandize it, and extort it into slow submission (a more plausible and useful objective for Pyongyang today than outright military conquest). This is why I’ve said that Pyongyang doesn’t want peace, or even a peace treaty. Pyongyang wants a peace treaty negotiation.

Of course, Pyongyang has already violated an Armistice, an inter-Korean denuclearization agreement, the NPT, two agreed frameworks, the 2005 joint statement, and the Leap Day deal. Why should we believe that yet another piece of paper would protect us?

Finally, do they believe that if sanctions build sufficient pressure, perhaps denuclearization can be negotiated? No one who understands sanctions would be advocating dialogue with Pyongyang now. Even if we can pressure China into enforcing them that long, sanctions will take a minimum of two years to do real damage to North Korea’s palace economy, and other subversive measures to complement sanctions will likely take even longer than this. 

But at least this approach, as unlikely as it is to result in a verifiable negotiated disarmament of Pyongyang, isn’t completely delusional; after all, sanctions have at least helped get Pyongyang to agree to disarm (before it reneged). I’ve used the phrase “igneous heat and metamorphic pressure” to describe what will be needed to change Pyongyang’s mind. Sanctions are an essential part of a policy to create this heat and pressure, but so are coalition diplomacy, law enforcement, public diplomacy, information operations, and direct engagement that empowers the North Korean people even as sanctions weaken the regime’s machinery of control.

Together, these instruments of international power can present Pyongyang with the choice it has successfully resisted for decades — to reform, or to perish. Pyongyang’s choice may come in the form of a diplomatic outreach, several false starts, and years of hard bargaining. It may also require some kind of coup or power shift, which sanctions may help catalyze if we discredit Kim Jong-un’s byungjin policy sufficiently. But unless we send a clear signal that we’re prepared to induce the collapse of North Korea’s political system barring such an agreement, that agreement will never come.

1 Comment

  1. The simple, hard truth may be that Kim Jong-un is existentially tied to both the possession of nuclear weapons and the use of those weapons to threaten the United States and its allies.

    That is correct. North Korea’s nuclear program was started by Kim il-Sung and continued by his two successors; all three of whom are considered semi-divine. Giving up the nuclear weapons for any price or any reason would destroy the personality cult and introduce the idea that North Korea’s rulers can err, which is obviously a place Kim does not want to go. Kim Jong Eun needs nuclear weapons in order to create tension with the south Korean imperialist running dogs and their American masters so as to distract North Koreans from and scapegoat North Korea’s enemies for the pitiful living conditions in North Korea. Further, North Koreans are told from their mothers’ knees that their Great Leader almost single handedly defeated the war criminal American aggressors in the Korean War. Looking as if he is surrenduring to America would be an existential threat to his regime,