A weird logic prevails among certain North Korea-watchers, to whom Pyongyang’s every violation of the many disarmament agreements it has already signed becomes “fresh” evidence that we must pay it to sign yet another disarmament agreement. Thus, every time Pyongyang launches a missile or tests a bomb, we can expect a new crop of op-eds making shopworn and increasingly oblivious arguments for a freeze deal that Pyongyang has said — clearly, emphatically, and repeatedly — it doesn’t want and won’t sign.
And Pyongyang could not be more clear or emphatic: it doesn’t want a freeze deal, it isn’t going to disarm. If it won’t disarm, what exactly are we supposed to talk about, and how much leverage, what interests, and which principles are we supposed to throw away to get nothing discernible? And while we’re at it, aren’t the people dispensing this advice mostly the same geniuses (or their acolytes) who brought us Agreed Framework I, Agreed Framework II, and the Leap Day Deal, and who ended up leaving it to President Donald J. Trump to “handle” the world’s worst nuclear crisis since 1962?
Every time I read an iteration of this talk-to-North-Korea op-ed, I want to grab the writer by his lapels and scream into his face: “Don’t tell me to talk to North Korea if you aren’t listening to North Korea!” So, in that spirit, let’s take a moment to listen to North Korea.
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2/2017: “It is the stand of the DPRK not to hesitate or make any concession in bolstering up its capability for self-defence. The U.S. is sadly mistaken if it thinks the nuclear deterrence of the DPRK is a matter for political bargaining and economic deal after putting it on the negotiating table.” [Rodong Sinmun]
3/2017: “For the DPRK standing in confrontation with the U.S., the chieftain of aggression advocating the doctrine that nukes are all-powerful, its strong nuclear attack capabilities serve as a treasured sword for averting a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula and defusing the danger of war against the Korean nation. The power of the nuclear strike means of the DPRK precisely means its national power and dignity.” [Rodong Sinmun]
3/2017: “As it presents itself as an immediate vital requirement for the DPRK to further bolster the capabilities for self-defence with a nuclear force as pivot given that the U.S. is staging joint military exercises for aggression after introducing largest-ever strategic assets into the Korean peninsula, the DPRK can not but take into serious account its participation in the conference and, therefore, decided not to take part in the conference.” [N. Korean Foreign Ministry, via KCNA]
4/2017 (at the UN Disarmament Conference, of all places!): “It is an entirely just right to self-defence of a sovereign state to keep itself highly alert and bolster in every way its strong war deterrent capable of mercilessly wiping out the aggressors as required by the grim situation where an actual war may break out any moment…. As long as the U.S. and its vassal forces persistently pose nuclear threat and blackmail and continue the nuclear war racket masked as an annual one at the doorstep of the DPRK, the DPRK will as ever bolster up its capabilities for self-defence and preemptive attack with the nuclear force as a pivot.” [Rodong Sinmun]
5/2017: “Beautified by the Trump administration, as if they are performing a little act of kindness for North Korea, the essence of the ‘engagement’ policy is simple… they want to disarm us,” the editorial, published in the DPRK’s most widely read newspaper, reads. “With flowery rhetoric, every day the U.S. is saying that ‘engagement’ is needed for ‘peaceful resolution’ [with the North] while claiming that not only the pressure, but the ‘resolving through talks and negotiation’ is what the U.S. wants.” [Rodong Sinmun, via NK News]
7/2017: “The only way out for the U.S.…is to withdraw the…hostile policy toward the DPRK and kneel and apologize before its army and people.” [KCNA]
7/2017: “The DPRK would neither put its nukes and ballistic rockets on the table of negotiations in any case.” [Kim Jong-Un, quoted in KCNA]
7/2017: “Under the present international situation where the U.S. and its vassal forces’ policy of nuclear threat and blackmail persist, the DPRK will bolster up military capability for self-defense with nuclear force as pivot and ability of making a preemptive attack in order to preserve the country’s sovereignty and the nation’s right to existence. The DPRK’s measures to bolster up the nuclear force for self-defense will go on until the nuclear weapons are eliminated from the earth.” [KCNA]
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Still not enough for you? Then go to the S.T.A.L.I.N. search engine and look up “treasured sword” or “nuclear deterrent.” Now, already, the frequent Air Koryo flyers (as B.R. Myers calls them) are saying, “But I went to Pyongyang and Vice-Minister Kim said …,” or the perennial 38North favorite, “If you parse it, they really mean ….”
Parse all you want. Bruce Klingner and Sue Terry met with them at Track 2 talks early this year. The North Koreans were “unambiguously clear.” They “will not be deterred from augmenting [their nuclear arsenal or test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile.” They offered “no signals of flexibility or willingness to negotiate on these programs.” Their message was that “denuclearization is off the table.” No “combination of economic and diplomatic benefits or security reassurances” can make them keep the other denuclearization agreements they signed in 1994, 2005, 2007, or 2012 (to name just a few examples).
Also, for all the talk from American soft-liners that we must drop our preconditions to talks that obviously aren’t about disarmament, the North Koreans are now offering a precondition of their own: “First accept us as a nuclear state, then we are prepared to talk about a peace treaty or fight. We are ready for either.” In which case, we’ve lost just by showing up.
Still, the calls for us to talk to Pyongyang about its inexhaustible list of insatiable demands (but none of ours) just keep rolling off the conveyer belt that runs from the Northwest Washington think thanks to the desks of editors — often from the same geniuses who’ve built long and successful careers out of misjudging Pyongyang’s intentions. It may be too much to ask that they stop peddling this fantasy about a deal Pyongyang doesn’t even want and won’t keep. But won’t they at least read and try to rationalize away Pyongyang’s words at some point along the way?