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The Obstacles to Productive Diplomacy with North Korea

Another obstacle to successful diplomacy with North Korea is that the U.S. has proven to be pretty bad at negotiating with weaker states and then even worse when it comes to honoring the agreements made with them.

Robert Kelly does a good job summing up why talks with North Korea have gone nowhere:

That no one is even talking about these types of deep, painful swaps in the United States is a bright red flag that Washington is not serious. Instead, policymakers just keep demanding and demanding that North Korea give their weapons away. Of course, they will not, and so America is stuck. Fifteen months of negotiation has generated no progress because the Americans can not bring themselves to countenance a genuinely painful concession. So the North Koreans give Washington nothing real in return, and here we are, at that same place everyone started.

Negotiations with North Korea have been plagued by the administration’s insistence on complete disarmament from the start, but their misguided maximalism is just a product of a general unwillingness in the U.S. to accept that North Korea won’t ever be giving up all of its nuclear weapons. Once our policymakers and politicians declare something to be unacceptable, it takes a very long time for them to acknowledge that they have to accept it. For decades the U.S. said it would not tolerate North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Then they acquired them and the U.S. discovered that our government couldn’t do anything about it without incurring unacceptably high costs. In the end, the U.S. found that there are things much more unacceptable than North Korean nuclear weapons, and so we are one step closer to tacitly accepting them. We still haven’t taken the final step of recognizing that it is North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapons state that won’t be reversed.

It is because North Korea won’t be giving up its nuclear weapons that we need to be able to reach a mutually agreeable compromise that imposes limits on the size of their arsenal in exchange for sanctions relief. The more time that our government wastes chasing after the fantasy of disarmament under whatever name they want to give it, the less leverage that the U.S. has and the larger North Korea’s arsenal becomes. No one wants to have to live with a North Korean nuclear arsenal, but if we are going to have to live with one anyway we should seize the opportunity to make sure that it is a relatively smaller one that is subject to some kind of international inspections. Because the Trump administration thinks that diplomacy is an all-or-nothing proposition, they have issued pointless ultimatums in an attempt to get everything and will walk away with no concessions.

Another obstacle to successful diplomacy with North Korea is that the U.S. has proven to be pretty bad at negotiating with weaker states and then even worse when it comes to honoring the agreements made with them. It was eight years between the deal struck with Gaddafi in Libya and the U.S.-led intervention to overthrow him. It took less than three years from the time the U.S. concluded a deal with Iran until the next administration arbitrarily reneged on it. The Agreed Framework didn’t last more than a decade before the Bush administration blew it up and put us on the path to the current impasse. The problem isn’t just that other states have good reason not to trust the U.S. to keep up our end of the bargain, but that these agreements are unusually vulnerable to sabotage by the domestic political opponents of the administrations that negotiated them.

Agreements with weaker states don’t do well in our political system because there is a widely-shared assumption in Washington that the U.S. shouldn’t have settled for whatever it got from the other side and should have forced bigger concessions. These states are perceived to be just threatening enough to be distrusted, but weak enough that we shouldn’t have to compromise with them. Republican hawks are most likely to exploit this to their advantage, but we have seen some similar posturing from Democratic hawks over North Korea talks that shows how difficult it would be for Trump to sell an agreement with North Korea if he ever managed to get one. We need to remember that most of the criticism of Trump’s engagement with North Korea has been that he has been too accommodating to the DPRK rather than too inflexible and maximalist, and that bodes ill for the durability of any potential agreement.

Because the states that made these agreements with our government are viewed as essentially illegitimate “rogues,” there are strong political incentives against offering them anything significant and equally strong incentives to increase our demands later on. There is virtually no political price to be paid for reneging on an agreement with one of these states, and few politicians want to expend the political capital to negotiate one in the first place. As a result, securing one of these agreements is usually a time-consuming, politically costly slog that is then thrown into the trash within a decade so the previous administration’s critics can score points and show how stupidly “tough” they are. The JCPOA was almost entirely one-sided in favor of the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1, but for its detractors anything less than total Iranian capitulation was considered “appeasement.” Under these conditions, a meaningful compromise with North Korea that involved major concessions from the U.S. and our allies doesn’t stand a chance of surviving for more than a few years.