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U.S. May Shift Strategy on North Korea

Author: Esther Pan
May 24, 2006
This publication is now archived.

What’s the latest development in U.S. strategy toward North Korea?

On May 17, the New York Times reported that the Bush administration is considering shifting its stance toward North Korea. Instead of insisting that North Korea completely and verifiably disarm and renounce nuclear weapons before agreeing to negotiations, as they have in the past, U.S. officials now say they could consider negotiating a formal peace treaty with Pyongyang—to replace the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War—while talks continue on the nuclear program. However, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the negotiations on a peace treaty would go forward only if North Korea came back to the six-party talks and committed itself to disarming. In September 2005, the participants in the six-party talks—China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, the United States, and Russia—signed a provisional agreement that committed Pyongyang to giving up its nuclear program in return for international assistance. But the details of carrying out the agreement were left to future talks, which have stalled.

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Has the administration policy toward North Korea been effective thus far?

Many experts say no. "This administration has lacked a North Korea strategy since it came into office," says Nicholas Eberstadt, the Henry Wendt scholar in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute. "They've had an attitude about Kim Jong-Il—negative—and an attitude about North Korea having nuclear weapons—negative. But they've lacked a coherent strategy to link attitude to outcomes."

Robert Gallucci, dean of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, says, "The story of the last five years is that this administration is divided on how to deal with North Korea." Experts say the administration's split has occurred along turf lines: The State Department tended to favor negotiation and engagement with North Korea, while the Defense Department and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney refused to offer concessions and pushed for regime change. The divide was "not a particularly useful way to get negotiations going," Gallucci says.

Would the policy shift be likely to produce results?

Experts doubt that dual-track diplomacy—addressing the nuclear issue concurrently with the peace agreement—would do much to simplify the many difficult issues, including trade, human rights, and counterfeiting, on which the United States and North Korea disagree. "If you find the nuclear relationship difficult to manage, why would you address all aspects of the entire relationship in a formal peace treaty?" Gallucci asks. "I commend them for trying, but I'm not going to hold my breath for success," says Daniel Pinkston, senior research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

How do the other members of the six-party talks feel about the U.S. strategy?

The U.S. negotiating stance for much of the last five years has been to push for total disarmament by North Korea while refusing to lay out the incentives that Pyongyang could receive for disarming. "The Asians don't think it's effective," Pinkston says. "Seoul and Beijing are still committed to engagement with North Korea." Both those countries are resisting U.S. pressure to clamp down on North Korea, have not applied sanctions on Pyongyang, and are continuing to develop economic relationships with Kim Jong-Il's regime.

South Korea is particularly resistant to U.S. efforts to isolate Pyongyang, experts say. Seoul's official policy is to work toward reconciliation and eventual reunification with North Korea, and South Korean officials have lately been striking a more independent foreign policy posture after decades of following Washington. According to the State Department, Seoul and Pyongyang had $679 million in bilateral trade in 2004, and South Korea is North Korea's second-largest trading partner after China. In addition, experts say, South Koreans feel a sympathetic kinship to the North that Americans don't understand. "It's like your uncle has a drug problem. You don't just kill him, and you don't antagonize him so he goes crazy and burns your house down," Pinkston says.

What is North Korea’s approach to further negotiations?

"My impression from talking to people throughout the region is that North Korea is not interested in negotiating with the Bush administration anymore, at all," Pinkston says. "At this point, Pyongyang's strategy is to wait out the Bush administration." And even if the North Koreans came back to the negotiating table, they would most likely bring their notorious intractability. "Getting to yes with the North Koreans is actually very easy," Eberstadt says. "All you have to do is sacrifice all your main objectives and agree to all of theirs."

Who has the upper hand in negotiations at the moment?

Many experts say it is North Korea, which, over the last several years, has:

  • Developed a nuclear arsenal of an estimated six to eight nuclear weapons and continued to enrich nuclear fuel.
  • Removed its nuclear program from all international treaties, obligations, and safeguards.
  • Decided when to negotiate and when to drop out, and then set the terms for returning to negotiations.
  • Steadily increased the amount of unconditional aid it receives from international sources. Pyongyang has received more than $1 billion in aid from the United States alone since 1995, and nearly five million metric tons of combined food aid from the United States, China, South Korea, and Japan between 1996 and 2002.

Experts who have worked with the Pyongyang government say North Korean negotiators are very focused on achieving their goals, and do so in a dogged and ultimately effective manner. "The North Korean government's diplomatic playbook is known only to Kim Jong-Il," Eberstadt says. "But they have a very zero-sum view of the world. They believe all their gains must be matched by losses on the other side. And, despite all appearances to the contrary, they're fairly effective diplomatic negotiators."

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