In 1994, one might have been forgiven for believing that for the right price, an isolated, famine-stricken, and potentially unstable regime in Pyongyang might have agreed to trade a nascent nuclear weapons program for the financial foundations of a new stability. Much harder to accept, given subsequent experience, is how the Bush administration could have reached the same conclusion in 2007, when North Korea’s nuclear program was no longer nascent, and when (thanks to the Sunshine Policy’s unconditional aid, and Pyongyang’s resourceful use of hunger to enforce its control) the regime had survived the famine intact.
But perhaps, the Obama administration might have reckoned, the problem was that our focus was too wide, and we should start with a deal to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. To no avail; in 2012, Kim Jong-un reneged on a freeze deal within six weeks by test-launching a “satellite.” So when Joel Wit — who claims some involvement in the negotiations of both the 1994 and 2007 agreements, and who has said that at least the first of these “worked very well”* — argues in the pages of the New York Times that the situation is grave and deteriorating quickly, I won’t argue with the latter assertion. Nor will I deny that our North Korea policy has failed, although I wonder why this suggests that we should default to what has failed before.
A successful strategy will have to include a new diplomatic initiative aimed at persuading the North to first stop expanding its arsenal and then to eventually reduce and dismantle its weapons. [Joel Wit, N.Y. Times]
I understand why we’d want to halt North Korea’s proliferation if we could do so for an acceptable price. We can only speculate what Pyongyang’s asking price is, but we’ll turn to that in a moment. Experience should teach us to be especially cautious of vague discussions with North Korea, with its aptitude for creative interpretation, its frequent assertion of fresh demands, and the inexorable advance of its goalposts.
To persuade the North Koreans to do this, Washington will have to address [Pyongyang’s] security concerns. In the short term, that may mean temporarily suspending or modifying some American-South Korean military exercises. In the longer term, it may mean replacing the armistice in place since the end of the Korean War with a permanent peace agreement.
This sets the table for a decade of creative interpretation, fresh demands, and inexorably advancing goalposts. What possible agreement might this yield that both Pyongyang and Seoul would accept?
The more immediate obstacle could be Seoul, whose interests Wit doesn’t directly discuss. But surely any sensible South Korean president can predict how a nuclear North Korea would escalate its demands during a protracted peace treaty negotiation — and the more protracted the negotiation, the better for Pyongyang. Pyongyang would seek to sideline Seoul through bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang, just as North Vietnam sidelined South Vietnam in 1973. With its leverage enhanced and growing, such a negotiation would become a process for the gradual, unilateral disarmament of the U.S.-ROK coalition, the lifting of sanctions, the de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status, and a series of incremental surrenders of South Koreans’ freedom to protest Pyongyang’s brutality (thus giving that brutality greater license and a longer reach).
To be sure, Wit also advocates tightening sanctions and reassuring our allies of our protection, although this is difficult to reconcile with his proposals that we sacrifice the readiness of the forces defending Korea by canceling exercises. It’s possible, of course, that the government South Koreans elect in 2017 either won’t understand or won’t mind any of these implications. Not every potential candidate is sensible enough to predict how a “peace process” would proceed. One of them just might become South Korea’s own Nguyen Van Thieu.
Nor is it in Pyongyang’s interest to agree to a freeze right now, just as it’s at the brink of achieving the very goal it has pursued with methodical determination for decades. Whatever the terms of a deal would be, Wit isn’t quite convincing that Pyongyang is interested in them. At one point, he claims that “North Korean officials have even told me in private” that Washington could persuade them “to stop their bad behavior.” (Victor Cha, who also participated in these discussions, interprets the North Koreans’ view as little more than a repetition of “talking points.”) So is Pyongyang buying what Wit is selling?
Nevertheless, there are signs that North Korea is interested in dialogue. On July 6, the government issued a pronouncement ostensibly seeking denuclearization talks with the United States, specifically mentioning Kim Jong-un’s name in support of this initiative.
Later, however, Wit says that the North Koreans aren’t all that interested:
These initiatives will be met with skepticism not only in the United States — where many people believe that negotiating with North Korea is a waste of time — but also in Pyongyang. As a North Korean official, who believes a new administration will just tear up previous agreements, said to me earlier this year, “It’s easier for us to build nuclear weapons than to be involved with you for decades only to have agreements turn into useless scraps of paper.”
Here, Wit is almost certainly correct. Why, indeed, would Kim Jong-un freeze the nuclear program his father and grandfather pursued with such determination and at such cost for so many decades, given that it is his instrument for completing their legacy and asserting de facto negotiated hegemony over all of Korea?
Unless, of course, the asking price is right. This is what makes America the “indispensable” party.
One reason North Korea may be motivated to consider denuclearization is economic. Since taking office in 2011, Mr. Kim has been committed to improving his country’s economy. He seems to believe that nuclear weapons would allow even more focus on that objective. Nevertheless, he has deliberately left room to ease off the nuclear track and explore a dialogue, perhaps reflecting an understanding that there are limits to what his country’s economy can achieve while it is isolated from the international community. Of course, no one is naïve enough to take these statements at face value. Talks between governments are the only way to know for sure.
Even if this year’s election is deservedly apocalyptic for the GOP, who supposes that Congress would appropriate funds to pay Kim Jong-un’s asking price? Does the President even have the power to unilaterally suspend or lift sanctions, given the specific conditions Congress set in sections 401 and 402 of the NKSPEA, and which the President agreed to when he signed the bill into law? Not unless Congress passes legislation like the Menendez bill that cleared away for the Iran deal. Who supposes the next Congress would pass that, assuming any American president proposed it?
More fundamentally, concluding a peace treaty in the foreseeable future isn’t in Pyongyang’s interest. It needs the threat of war to justify its existence. Its leaders, and elements of its population, may be biochemically addicted to instigating conflict. Pyongyang recognizes no limits to its censorship, meaning that it will never recognize coexistence with societies that cling to the freedom to criticize and parody its deity, a man who is among the world’s easiest and most deserving targets for criticism and parody. Is there any limit to the fresh demands Pyongyang will add to those it achieves during a hypothetical “peace process?” Will Americans and South Koreans be willing to forfeit their freedom of speech and expression to buy a moment’s peace before the next threat?
Let’s end this post by burning down some straw men. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with talking to North Korean diplomats informally to gauge their positions. Should an acceptable, verifiable, enforceable diplomatic solution come into focus, that would be so good as to verge on the miraculous. Informal Track 2 talks between North Korean diplomats and former U.S. diplomats, however, too often have become proxy wars between the policies of the past and the policies of the present.
Perhaps, two years from now, determined sanctions enforcement and subversive information operations can shift the relative bargaining positions of the parties enough that for once, Pyongyang will come to the table prepared to bargain in good faith. But when talks yield nothing more than vague expressions of possible interest in agreement on undefined terms, the proper response is to nod politely and calendar the next meeting, not to declare on the pages of The New York Times that peace — however vague, elusive, or costly to our interests and values — may finally be at hand.
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* Since corrected. I’m not sure Wit has argued that the 2007 deal also “worked very well.”