Flipping the script
In my book, “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future,” the Korean edition of which will be published this spring, I talked about “negotiation traps” to which those who negotiate with North Korea inevitably succumb. The one that entraps the United States is the problem of being too reasonable. What this means is that every agreement with North Korea, whether in the 1994 Agreed Framework, the 2006 Six Party process, or the Obama administration’s aborted “Leap Day” agreement, is negotiated with painstaking care in which parties hammer out specific quid pro quos, the synchronization of steps, timelines, with concomitant rewards and penalties.
Yet sooner or later, Pyongyang plays brinksmanship and demands more than it was promised or does less than it should. While everyone accepts that the DPRK is being completely unreasonable, they also realize that a failure of the agreement could precipitate another crisis. To avoid this, the parties end up pressing the United States to be more flexible, knowing full well that the DPRK is at fault and traversing the bounds of fairness and good faith, but at the same time, certain that the only chance of progress can be had from American reasonableness rather than DPRK unreasonableness. The result is that any additional American flexibility is widely perceived in the region as evidence of American leadership, but is viewed in Washington as some combination of desperation and weakness.
I would argue that this dynamic is evident today in the aftermath of the North’s January 2016 fourth nuclear test. The Wall Street Journal reported this past weekend that the United States had agreed secretly to peace treaty talks with North Korea just days prior to the Jan. 6 test, and then walked away from those talks after the test. The State Department then corrected the report saying that Washington did not agree to peace treaty talks before the test. Instead, Pyongyang reached out with a proposal for peace treaty talks, which the United States rejected when Pyongyang would not agree that such talks should take place in parallel with denuclearization talks.
The State Department’s characterization of the North Korean position comports with what I heard in Berlin last earlier this month as part of a small group of experts who engaged in Track 2 talks with the North Koreans. They considered denuclearization an American preoccupation with the past that is no longer relevant today.
What is significant about this sequence of events is not whether the Wall Street Journal report is correct. Instead, it is the implication of the State Department’s response - which essentially says that the United States is now ready to engage in peace treaty talks with the DPRK if these talks would also include, as a component, denuclearization. In American slang, this is known as “flipping the script.” That is, we are witnessing an incremental but significant shift from the template of 25 years of previous negotiations with the North. Both the 1994 Agreed Framework and the Six Party agreements privileged denuclearization as the key objective, and only if denuclearization should proceed apace, then discussions among relevant parties for a permanent peace regime on the peninsula would be undertaken.
The logic behind these past agreements was twofold: 1) one could not conceive of a peace treaty ending the Korean War without the removal of nuclear weapons from the peninsula (a condition which the United States fulfilled under President George H.W. Bush at the end of the Cold War); and 2) by “sequencing” denuclearization before peace treaty, one could ensure that a peace treaty does not have the effect of validating North Korea’s nuclear weapons status.
The State Department’s response to the Wall Street Journal article effectively states a new precedent for dialogue with the North - a comprehensive peace settlement negotiation of which nuclear weapons would be only one component. This will no doubt satisfy some who have argued that an agreement to replace the armistice with a peace agreement is the necessary precondition for negotiation. And it will no doubt anger others who see this a realization of the North Korean objective to achieve a peace treaty with the United States as a de jure nuclear weapons state.
The debate is academic at the moment because dialogue does not appear in the offing. But should the current cycle of heightened tensions reach a plateau that creates space for the diplomats to return to the negotiating table, then the Obama administration or its successor will once again confront the problem of American reasonableness.
The author is professor at Georgetown University and Senior Adviser and the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
by Kim Hoe-ryong, Victor Cha