"The Americans are serious," the head of the Russian delegation told the North Koreans in a meeting in Beijing in September 2005. "You see this? This is called a negative security assurance. We tried to get this from them throughout the Cold War and were unsuccessful."
We'd been negotiating since 2004 -- the famous "six-party" talks featuring the United States, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and, of course, the North -- trying to hammer out an agreement that would end Pyongyang's nuclear program. The issue of the moment was a clause that had just been approved in Washington, stating that the United States "would not attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons."
It was a big step for the Americans, and the Russians, at least, recognized that. It meant that Kim Jong Il had finally received the security guarantee -- and the end to alleged American hostility -- that he'd always sought. But when the North Korean delegates later brushed off the clause as a mere piece of paper that did nothing to truly assure North Korean security, it dawned on me that things that seem exquisitely important to the North Koreans at one moment can suddenly become unimportant the next. Their demands and their desires can diverge considerably.
For years we've debated whether North Korea is willing to trade nukes for security, or whether it considers nuclear weapons the ultimate security guarantee. But that misses the point. North Korea's aims, as I've come to understand them through my years studying the country and negotiating with its diplomats, are much bigger than that. We need to grasp them if we're going to break through the current crisis.