U.S. must abandon hard-line stance in talks with North Korea

Posted January 1, 2004

Categories: Articles, Korea


You can lead two parties to a negotiating table, but you can’t make them compromise.  As the United States and North Korea head into six-party negotiations this week, both countries find themselves boxed into a diplomatic corner.  These hardening positions make a robust agreement unlikely even though such a deal is in the long-term interest of both parties.

North Korea’s diplomatic quandary concerns the purposes of its nuclear program.  On the one hand, the country’s nuclear weapons – whether they exist in fact or just in rhetoric – serve to deter an Iraq-style attack.  Yet the nuclear program is also the only real bargaining chip that North Korea brings to the table.  Keep the deterrent and there will be no agreement.  Trade the chip for a package of economic goodies and lose the deterrent.

The United States is in a similarly difficult bind.  The Bush administration has done everything to put North Korea beyond the pale of negotiations.  The country remains in the “axis of evil” and, according to a recent statement by Vice President Dick Cheney, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.”  Whatever the internal disagreements over tactics, the administration has been clear about its desire for regime change in North Korea.  As if this weren’t enough to doom negotiations, administration figures have heaped scorn upon the last deal with North Korea, the Agreed Framework.  To negotiate anything short of complete capitulation from North Korea during this election year would throw the administration open to charges of appeasement from neo-conservatives and hawkish Democrats.

And yet, precisely because it is an election year, the Bush administration has to demonstrate that it hasn’t stuck its head in the sand on this issue.  There is much talk in Washington of a “more for more” agreement with North Korea.  According to such a scenario, the United States would trade greater economic incentives and diplomatic recognition if North Korea mothballs its nuclear program as well as reduces conventional forces, accelerates economic reform, and addresses human rights.

On paper, this might sound sensible.  But such a “big bang” approach is unlikely to appeal to North Korea, given the paucity of trust in relations between the two countries.  The more elements added to the negotiations, the more unwieldy they become and thus the less likely they will succeed.  To further complicate matters, the Bush administration has insisted on negotiations with North Korea in a multilateral format with Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia.  Many experts on North Korea, even those within the U.S. government, acknowledge that only face-to-face talks with Pyongyang can resolve the current crisis.  Such bilateral negotiations, rather than mere hard-line posturing, produced the recent breakthrough in U.S.-Libyan relations that has ended the latter’s nuclear program.

A better approach in Northeast Asia would be “less for less:” a resumption of heavy fuel oil in exchange for a freeze of plutonium reprocessing.  North Korea would not yet be giving up its deterrent or its only bargaining chip.  And the Bush administration could claim a diplomatic victory but not at the cost of “blackmail,” for the United States had been providing heavy fuel oil to North Korea for nearly a decade.  From this modest first step, the two sides could begin to build trust in order to move on to other questions, such as the status of Pyongyang’s second path to the bomb, the highly enriched uranium program.

For the current six-party talks to produce a viable agreement, the Bush administration has to be willing to take a modest step forward in talks with North Korea.  It must be willing to meet face to face in order to save face, even if such bilateral negotiations take place in a multilateral framework.  To avert a terrifying war in northeast Asia, both sides have to think outside the box.  More importantly, both sides have to move outside their boxes.

Progressive Media Project, February 19, 2004

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