How to Negotiate With North Korea

On Sunday, The New York Times revealed that North Korea had invited Siegfried Hecker, an American nuclear scientist, to visit the nuclear facility at Yongbyon. The North Koreans showed Hecker a new uranium-enrichment facility, previously unknown to the United States. In technical terms, the uranium-enrichment facility means that North Korea can pursue a two-track nuclear-weapons program. North Korea's previous nuclear devices were constructed using plutonium harvested from the reactor at Yongbyon. North Korea possessed only a limited amount of plutonium, meaning that there was a ceiling on the number of weapons the Democratic People's Republic of Korea could construct. The development of an alternative uranium program has the potential to expand the DPRK's capability of making nuclear-weapons.

The existence of a uranium-enrichment program parallel to North Korea's plutonium efforts had been hinted at since 2002. North Korea had intermittently denied the existence of such a program while reaffirming its right to enrich uranium. U.S. suspicions about uranium enrichment brought about the collapse of the Agreed Framework in 2002, which would have set up an exchange of energy and other goods in return for a North Korean promise to halt its nuclear program. However, both this facility and the certainty of the program's progress came as a surprise to many analysts.

North Korea's decision to reveal the facility provokes a host of interesting questions, most notably on the issues of foreign support, North Korean motivation, and U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities. While all of these have bearing on the future of North Korea's relationship with the United States, they don't directly touch on whether the United States and the DPRK can reach an accord on nuclear-weapons development. Unfortunately, such an agreement appears increasingly unlikely.

An agreement with North Korea could happen in two ways. First, the United States and its allies could pursue a "grand bargain" to resolve the major issues of dispute and effectively normalize relations in Northeast Asia. Second, the U.S. and its allies could pursue an incremental strategy designed to produce trust and to resolve immediate issues of crisis. Both approaches have their merits; the former recognizes the linkage between problems and attempts to shorten the period in which the parties can sabotage an agreement, while the latter aims at modest, realizable short-term gains.

Sadly, neither of these approaches is likely to bear fruit. The grand-bargain strategy founders upon the problem that there is probably no single diplomatic outcome that is acceptable to both the United States and North Korea. Even if we allow that North Korea is willing to accept a diplomatic arrangement short of reunification on its own terms, it probably is not willing to give up its nuclear-weapons program. Although North Korean domestic politics remain opaque, the resources that the DPRK has expended in pursuit of nuclear weapons makes it virtually impossible to concede the program as a bargaining chip.

The United States, on the other hand, has great difficulty in recognizing the DPRK as a "normal" state. This is because many U.S. analysts continue to doubt that the North Korean regime will survive into the medium term. This is not an irrational belief. North Korea remains in the grip of a severe economic crisis and has shown no ability to reform its society and economy along the lines of China or Vietnam. Moreover, North Korea will probably undergo a leadership change in the near future. Putting together a grand bargain with a state presumably on the edge of collapse makes little sense from the American point of view. For their part, North Koreans have a more optimistic view of the future of the regime but know how the Americans see the situation. The DPRK consequently also has little incentive to engage in what it considers bad-faith negotiations.

An incremental strategy works by vesting interests on either side of the agreement; the parties comply with what they've already promised in order to maintain the gains that they've seen as well as to keep open the possibility of future gains. An incremental strategy doesn't require recognition of legitimacy or even of the long-term existence of both parties. It does, however, require a credible commitment on both sides to develop a system of penalties and rewards in order to maintain cooperation. This need for commitment comes with its own set of problems.

First, the United States apparently lacks the ability to confirm whether North Korea is maintaining its side of agreements. As the surprise introduction of a uranium-enrichment facility indicates, U.S. intelligence is weak on North Korea. Even inspectors can't be certain of finding everything. This leads to situations like 2002, in which the Agreed Framework collapsed because the United States couldn't confirm to its satisfaction that North Korea was complying.

Second, North Korea understands that its relationship with the United States is asymmetric. The United States cares more about North Korean nuclear weapons than anything it might plausibly give North Korea in return for good behavior. North Korea can defect from any agreement, secure in the knowledge that it will still be in the interests of the United States to comply with North Korean demands. The modest shipments of fuel oil and other goods that the United States can supply are trivial in comparison with its interest in freezing the DPRK's nuclear program. Because the North Koreans can defect virtually without consequence, the United States has great difficulty confirming the veracity of any North Korean commitment.

North Korean behavior has vexed Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama. The difficulty doesn't lie with the delusions or incompetence of any American administration, although the United States has suffered from its fair share of both. Rather, reaching a conclusive agreement with North Korea is simply beyond the capabilities of the United States. Under current circumstances, North Korea cannot be "solved"; it can only be managed.