Obama needs leverage for North Korea talks

Obama needs leverage for North Korea talks

To further Peter’s thoughts in his recent post, I agree that the Obama administration is right to reject China’s call for more talks with North Korea, and to refuse any further negotiations with the DPRK until Kim Jong Il’s regime changes its behavior. Yet one can’t escape the irony that the Obama administration is following the same policy of refusing to negotiate that brought much self-righteous criticism from many commentators against former President George W. Bush. And as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama made the centerpiece of his foreign policy a pledge to do just the opposite, specifically offering to talk without preconditions to hostile regimes.

Let me be clear — I support the White House on this aspect of their North Korea policy. But I also think this might be a good occasion for reflection by commentators on all sides, myself included. It seems that the same voices that so indignantly condemned the Bush administration for its occasional refusal to engage in unconditional negotiations with unsavory regimes (such as Iran) now fall silent when the Obama administration does the same thing. Perhaps this is another example of what Ross Douthat perceptively described earlier this week as the "partisan mind" at work.

It is also a reminder to partisans and observers on all sides to resist caricaturing each other’s positions. I hope this latest impasse with North Korea at least helps elevate the policy debate beyond the hackneyed and simplistic "negotiate or not" rut. As any serious policymaker knows, in practice negotiations are one tool in the policy arsenal. They are not a neutral tool, as the act of negotiating inherently incurs potential risks (such as the other side using it to play a delay and dissemble game while still pursuing a nuclear program) along with potential rewards. And it is a fact that negotiating, especially if public, does confer some sense of legitimacy and political capital to the other side. Think of the debates in the 1980s over whether the odious apartheid regime in South Africa should be "isolated" or "engaged," and many critics rightfully pointed out that engagement would give the government a degree of legitimacy that it craved but did not deserve.

A realistic approach to negotiating must include leverage. For the United States, the most effective entry point for negotiating with an adversarial regime begins with assessing what kind of leverage we can bring to the negotiating table, and what kind of negotiating posture it would give us. Such a leveraged posture could include inducements we possess that the other side desires, or coercive instruments that are either in place and the other side wants lifted, or that haven’t been triggered yet and the other side wants to avoid. If a careful "leverage assessment" reveals a weak hand, then it is usually best not to enter into unconditional negotiations, especially because in those cases the best type of leverage might actually be the prospect of negotiations, desired by the other side.

In the case of North Korea, the lead officials in the Obama administration realize that they have little leverage, in part as a result of the concessions made in the last two years of the Bush administration (such as removal of the DPRK from the state sponsor of terror list, and lifting of the Banco Delta Asia sanction along with returning Kim Jong Il’s $25 million of ill-gotten gains) that failed to secure a meaningful improvement in North Korea’s behavior. Refusing to negotiate from the current posture is a good starting point and helps turn North Korea’s (possible) desire for talks into a source of some small leverage. To gain more leverage, reimposing the financial market sanctions on the private accounts of the regime’s leaders would help, as would revisiting the state sponsor of terrorism list. Equally important will be exploring ways to change China’s cost/benefit calculation for its support of the DPRK. Perhaps after these kinds of steps are taken, it will be time to talk again.