What's There to Talk About With North Korea?
Kim Jong Un wants to talk to Trump and pause nuclear and missile tests—but the line between diplomacy and brinkmanship isn't that simple.
On Thursday evening South Korean National-Security Adviser Chung Eui Yong, fresh off meeting North Korea’s reclusive leader in Pyongyang, stood before cameras at the White House and delivered an extraordinary message. Donald Trump had agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un—and soon, by May—to “achieve permanent denuclearization” on the Korean peninsula. The man who once threatened North Korea and its “Little Rocket Man” with “fire and fury” and total destruction, who bragged that his “nuclear button” was bigger than Kim’s and inflicted unprecedented economic pain on the North to stop its nuclear-weapons program, will do what no sitting American president has done before: meet with the head of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Chung noted that Kim is “committed to denuclearization,” but that the United States and South Korea will insist “that we not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
The past is indeed instructive. Consider this scenario: North Korea creates an international crisis, threatening to turn South Korea’s capital into “a sea of fire” and advancing its nuclear program in ways that prompt the United States to seriously consider taking military action. And then, just when it has reached the brink of conflict, North Korea leverages that crisis to bargain with South Korea as “equals” and negotiate with the United States from a position of strength, despite being a much weaker power.
The South Korean scholar Yong-Sup Han didn’t describe these dynamics this week, after North Korea first announced, following months of brinkmanship, that it was prepared for a presidential summit with South Korea and sweeping nuclear negotiations with the United States. Instead, he noted them nearly two decades ago, after analyzing how the North’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and apparent effort to reprocess fuel for nuclear weapons in the early 1990s sparked a flurry of international diplomacy.
The result was the 1994 Agreed Framework, in which North Korea consented to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for oil, nuclear-power reactors that couldn’t be used for nuclear weapons, and promises of normal diplomatic relations with the United States. But the deal, like later nuclear accords with North Korea, ultimately collapsed. This happened in part because of policy shifts between the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, but also because the United States discovered in 2002 that the North Koreans were secretly working on enriching uranium for nuclear weapons.
In assessing the news that North Korea is now open to “denuclearization” talks with the United States, “it’s really hard to conclude at this point that all of a sudden Kim Jong Un woke up one day and decided to genuinely give up nuclear weapons after [conducting] 90 missile tests and nuclear tests,” since coming to power in 2011, Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA Korea analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me earlier this week. These, she noted, included a suspected hydrogen bomb and three intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Kim may be hoping that the “playbook of provocation, then peace offensive, then negotiation and concession,” which worked for his father and grandfather, can work for him as well, Terry said. Waves of diplomatic progress with North Korea have repeatedly receded over the North’s refusal to disclose all of its nuclear activities and verify that it is no longer engaging in them, because the North Koreans “don’t really want” to relinquish their nuclear-weapons program. This time around, the North Koreans could be opting for talks in order “to wait Trump out—buy time, avoid further sanctions or God forbid a [military] strike,” she said.
What Kim Jong Un actually wants is “to be bought off. What we may be starting is the haggling phase,” Daniel Russel, who stepped down last year as the State Department’s top diplomat for East Asian and Pacific affairs, argued on Pod Save the World this week. Noting North Korea’s habit of “driving up the fear factor” to painful levels and then releasing “a flood of endorphins in the bloodstream of South Korea and the U.S. and Japan,” he speculated that Kim is looking for “a rental deal where [the Americans] basically pay off North Korea month to month, week to week, to tamp down its misbehavior.”
More than 25 years of haggling with North Korea has revealed a number of patterns. North Korea, for example, carries out fewer weapons tests and acts of aggression when it is engaged in negotiations with the United States, and more such provocations in the absence of diplomacy. According to the South Korean government, Kim Jong Un has pledged to pause his nuclear and missile tests during his dialogue with the United States.
The North has repeatedly halted parts of its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief or economic assistance such as fuel or food aid, even as it continues work on other parts. Terry pointed out that by declaring its nuclear force complete this fall after test-firing a long-range missile capable of reaching the United States, North Korea gave itself an excuse in future talks to accept restrictions like a moratorium on weapons tests.
More specifically, the Kim regime has negotiated away its decades-old Yongbyon nuclear reactor several times, but resisted ceding other elements of its increasingly sophisticated nuclear program. Stopping the production of fissile material and sending international inspectors to Yongbyon could be accomplished today, the Korea expert Joel Wit told me, but going beyond that “gets really tough.”
And while North Korea did commit in writing in 2005 to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs,” in return for the United States proclaiming that it had “no intention to attack or invade [North Korea] with nuclear or conventional weapons,” it has also signaled that it will only fully divest itself of nuclear weapons if its circumstances change dramatically—as in, for instance, America withdrawing its troops from the Korean peninsula or ending its military alliance with South Korea, which the U.S. has shown no interest in doing. (The 2005 statement arose out of a years-long process called the Six-Party Talks involving the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan that broke down at the end of the Bush administration over that perennial sticking point: verification of North Korea’s compliance with the agreement.) When South Korean officials tell us, as they did this week, that their North Korean counterparts say there’s “no reason for them to possess nuclear weapons as long as military threats to the North are eliminated and the regime’s security is guaranteed,” it may be a bit like when U.S. officials say there’d be no reason for America to maintain its nuclear arsenal if all other nuclear powers gave up their weapons.
Given this history, the Trump administration had, prior to Thursday evening, expressed profound skepticism about what North Korea’s latest diplomatic overtures will yield. “If the North Korean regime is serious about denuclearization, it’s words will have to be matched by actions,” a senior administration official told reporters on Tuesday. “To borrow the words of their leader, who gave an address only on New Year’s Day, they are mass-producing nuclear warheads and nuclear missiles. And that could continue even in the absence of any test launches. … If their plan is simply to try to buy time in order to continue building their arsenal, talks aren’t going to get very far at all. Because we’ve seen that movie before. We’ve seen it several times and we’re not about to make the latest sequel [with] a very bad ending.”
But despite this checkered track record, there are still compelling reasons for the United States to enter into talks with North Korea. The latest diplomatic opening offers a chance to better understand the enigmatic Kim regime, curb its runaway nuclear program, and address direct threats to the United States that haven’t been central to past rounds of negotiations, such as the North’s proliferation of nuclear materials to other states and non-state actors and its further development of long-range missiles. (The Clinton administration nearly struck a deal to restrict North Korea’s ballistic missiles in the 1990s.)
Yes, North Korea is coming to the table in a stronger position than it has before because of how advanced its nuclear program is now, said Joseph DeTrani, one of the U.S. negotiators during the Six-Party Talks. But that also makes its stated openness to compromising on that program all the more remarkable. “I don’t think you walk away from an opportunity to determine if there’s something there,” he told me earlier this week. “Playbook or not.”
“If they’re at the table it gives [the United States] an opportunity to figure out what they’re up to and also to press home our national-security interests,” said Wit. “I don’t care what got them there.”
“Where we are today clearly says that over the long history [of nuclear negotiations with North Korea] we have failed,” he added. “But in the 25 years, there have been periods of time where we were actually succeeding. We shouldn’t just paper that over. Because if we do it gives an impression of hopelessness.”
And perhaps the greatest reason for hope is this: The playbook has never ever included a summit between the American and North Korean heads of state—let alone the likes of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Speaking to reporters Thursday evening, a senior administration official explained the decision this way: “President Trump was elected in part because he is willing to take approaches very, very different from past approaches of past presidents. … President Trump made his reputation on making deals. Kim Jong Un is the one person who is able to make decisions under their uniquely ... totalitarian system. And so it made sense to accept an invitation to meet with the one person who can actually make decisions instead of repeating the long slog of the past.”