Kim Jong Untrustworthy

As the United States debates how to deal with North Korea’s belligerence, there’s one thing it should avoid at all costs: negotiating with Pyongyang.


It has been five days since Pyongyang’s claim that it tested a hydrogen bomb blasted the reclusive state back onto the front page of newspapers around the world. That decades of U.S. diplomacy have failed in their goal of getting the country to give up nuclear weapons — as evinced by Wednesday’s spectacular explosion — proves yet again that it’s hard to know what to do with North Korea.

It’s much easier to know what not to do: rush to engage it in talks. Reports are already circulating that Britain and China are calling for a return to the failed six-party talks. Comprising the United States, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and North Korea and convened with the aim of getting Pyongyang to denuclearize, the six-party talks occurred intermittently from 2003 to 2007 until Pyongyang pulled out in 2009. The talks set a model for how rogue states can negotiate their way to a nuclear weapon: prolong negotiations, extract concessions, and break promises while covertly developing a nuclear program.

Moreover, all negotiations with Pyongyang, ever since the first serious talks under Bill Clinton’s administration in 1993, have been based on the premise that the United States can persuade North Korea to abandon its goal of achieving a nuclear- or ballistic-missile capability. Since Clinton, all U.S. presidents or their lead negotiators have proclaimed that negotiations have resulted in a breakthrough that would end or freeze the North Korean nuclear threat. But none of the agreements seem to have slowed down the North Korean program: Pyongyang has mastered the technology of fission explosions, developed a reliable long-range ballistic missile, and conducted four nuclear tests (including one in October 2006, gallingly amid negotiations with then-President George W. Bush’s administration). A new round of negotiations — especially with a lame-duck administration — would likely result in the same outcome: a U.S. announcement of success, while Pyongyang quietly continues to weaponize its stockpiles of uranium.

If the Obama administration feels that it must enter into talks, it should not make the same mistakes that the Clinton and Bush administrations did by allowing North Korea to extract major aid. Instead, negotiations should begin with the assumption that almost nothing can be done diplomatically to dissuade North Korea from abandoning its nuclear program and that it will consistently cheat on any agreement. Such an attitude will at least give U.S. negotiators a realistic starting point from which to begin discerning what is possible to achieve, if anything, with North Korea.

Without this realistic approach, any new negotiations run the risk of continuing for too long — thanks to the U.S. belief that constantly talking with the North is the only responsible policy. The Clinton administration’s 1994 Agreed Framework — an agreement to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for light-water nuclear reactors — and the six-party talks initiated by the Bush administration gave Pyongyang all the time it needed to build a successful nuclear program.

Just as importantly, if Washington does reopen the six-party talks or any bilateral negotiations, it must avoid the temptation of believing that any deal, even a bad one, is better than no deal at all. This is as dangerous as being unwilling to walk away from the table. In past rounds of talks, U.S. negotiators convinced themselves that only by concluding some type of deal could the United States retain any leverage over the would-be proliferator. Yet, once bad deals allowed North Korea to attain a nuclear capability, Washington instead lost its leverage — while Pyongyang gained a powerful deterrent to foreign military action.

If the Obama administration is not willing to negotiate from a position of strength, then it should not negotiate at all. And meanwhile, it should keep the threat of force on the table — unlike the Clinton and Bush administrations: The Clinton administration pledged in the Agreed Framework that it would not invade North Korea, and chief American six-party talks negotiator Christopher Hill reiterated that position in 2005.

Strength, however, is not only about threatening military force. New sanctions that could weaken the financial health of Kim Jong Un’s regime must precede new negotiations. China and Russia regularly water down sanctions on North Korea in the U.N. Security Council: Unilateral action is more effective. The Bush administration’s freezing of roughly $25 million in personal assets of North Korean leaders held in Macau’s Banco Delta Asia in 2005 forced the regime of Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, back to the negotiating table. Yet just two years later, the Bush administration unwisely unfroze most of the assets; after receiving its cash, the Kim Jong Il regime again failed to live up to its promises. By 2009, the six-party talks had collapsed again, thanks to North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile. The United States needs to impose sanctions — and not lift them in the future, when it thinks a deal is in sight.

If talking is a mistake, what should the United States do instead? Rather than hanging on to the fantasy that Pyongyang can be cajoled into relinquishing its nuclear weapons, the United States should consider adopting a more traditional deterrent policy against North Korea. Washington should state that if Pyongyang launches a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, the United States will respond with a full U.S. attack on North Korea. Moreover, if the United States determines that Pyongyang has placed a warhead on a fueled intercontinental ballistic missile, it should destroy the site in which it’s housed. There can be no room for ambiguity — which usually results in U.S. self-restraint — nor can Pyongyang mistake the clarity and credibility of U.S. policy.

The only sure way of ending North Korea’s nuclear threat is to change the regime in Pyongyang. Undermining the Kim Jong Un regime needs to be a long-term goal of the United States and its partners. Denuclearization will not happen as long as Kim and his junta are in power, and no negotiations will be able to restrain them from building the nuclear lifeline that has allowed the regime to survive. Weakening and further isolating Pyongyang is a crucial element in ensuring that North Korea does not turn its nuclear capability into immunity from international pressure.

The goal of a harder and more realistic line against North Korea is not to instigate a war. Rather, it is the opposite: to demonstrate credibility in holding the line against any attempts by Pyongyang to leverage its nuclear capability for benefit. Squeezing the regime, while agreeing to negotiations only after Pyongyang has lived up to its international agreements may move Northeast Asia away from war, not toward it.

Photo Credit: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Michael Auslin is the author of The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region.

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