[Press Release_The Korea Times] Art of diplomacy, the North Korean way

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Art of diplomacy, the North Korean way

Posted : 2021-05-27  17:15

Updated : 2021-05-27  17:15

By Yun Byung-se

The first summit between President Joe Biden and President Moon Jae-in held in Washington, D.C. last week formalized the outcome of the new U.S. administration's North Korea policy review.

According to the leaders' joint statement, the review "will take a calibrated and practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with North Korea." Though it is scant on details due to the U.S. negotiation strategy, it resembles a "Goldilocks principle" that seeks a middle ground, avoiding both extremes ― not too hot (Trump's grand bargain), not too cold (Obama's strategic patience). In that sense, the Biden team chose a rather safe or less risky option for now.

There are several possible explanations for this choice. First, it reflects an unpleasant recognition of the reality that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future. Secondly, as Evans Revere at the Brookings Institution analyzed, "it is to maintain freedom of action and maintain the ability to go in a number of different directions to basically keep the administration's options as wide open as possible."

Thirdly, due to other multiple urgent challenges, the Biden administration does not want an escalation of tensions at least in the early stage of the presidency, nor can it afford to assign top priority to Pyongyang.

Members of the Biden national security team are old hands at North Korea. They know well that the window of opportunity for a negotiated settlement is very narrow and any deal with North Korea is a high risk and low return game. This is why President Biden said that the U.S. is under "no illusion" about the difficulties of denuclearizing North Korea and Secretary of State Tony Blinken said that the ball is now in North Korea's court.

It will take a while for North Korea to respond either positively or negatively. The sugar coating in the joint statement ― that diplomacy and dialogue will be based on the Singapore Joint Statement ― could be a positive factor, while a reference to North Korea's human rights and silence regarding a non-hostile policy or easing of sanctions will be a negative one.

Nevertheless, in light of the lessons below from past experiences, will we see a different ball game or the same old one if Pyongyang returns to the negotiation table?

Lesson No.1: North Korea tended to be more responsive to dialogue when the ROK-U.S. alliance dealt with it from a position of strength and with resolve. Talks about U.N. economic sanctions and the mobilization of force against Pyongyang during the first nuclear crisis in 1994 and U.S. military pressure and tough rhetoric in 2017 scared North Korea to enter serious negotiations, respectively (Geneva talks and Singapore summit).

Lesson No. 2: North Korea is a habitual deal breaker once a deal is made. The Agreed Framework of 1994 between the U.S. and North Korea came to an end when Pyongyang's covert uranium enrichment program was revealed in 2002. Pyongyang drove a nail in the coffin of the Six-party Joint Statement of Sept. 19, 2005 by refusing to agree to follow-up verification measures in 2008.

Lesson No.3: Semantics is a big weapon of North Korea. It interprets international agreements at its convenience. The Leap Day deal with the U.S. of February 29, 2012 including a moratorium on long-range missile tests, was broken only one month after the deal, when North Korea blatantly launched a long-range missile, claiming it was a "satellite." North Korea interprets the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in the Singapore joint statement of June 12, 2018 as including the withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and forces from South Korea.

Lesson No. 4: North Korea is a master of four negotiation tools ― brinkmanship, salami tactics, back-loading of its major concessions and frontloading of its priority interests. For instance, the Geneva Agreed Framework of 1994 put carrots (light water reactors) first before nuclear compliance. The Singapore joint statement of June 12, 2018 repeats the same pattern.

Two North Korean priorities (new U.S.-North Korea relations, a lasting peace regime on the Korean Peninsula) precede two U.S. priorities (complete denuclearization, and prisoner of war (POW)/ missing in action (MIA) remains). North Korea already demanded U.S. actions first, based on this sequence.

Lesson No. 5: North Korea's big words ― their favorite menu ― such as a non-hostile policy, regime security, and peace treaty, are black holes that deplete all our energy and time. Its intention is multi-pronged: to deflect the focus on denuclearization; to seek the withdrawal of the U.S. Forces Korea; and to terminate the ROK-U.S. alliance.

Lesson No. 6: North Korea consistently insists on principles such as "simultaneous action," "step-by-step process/ phased approach," "words for words," "commitment for commitment," and "action for action." Recent additions are "force for force" and "goodwill for goodwill." Each action, step or phase can turn into a vortex of merry-go-round "talkathons," making implementation a long drawn out process.

Now, Kim Jong-un must be weighing the pros and cons of possible talks with the Biden administration. The good old days of summitry with Donald Trump are gone. But an emboldened North Korean leader may believe he prevailed over both Trump's "fire and fury" and Obama's pressure campaign, and now, as a nuclear-armed state, has nothing to fear.

He may turn to his patron, China, again for political and economic assistance as he did in 2018. He must have thoroughly studied the Biden team's favorite Iranian model and various arms control and disarmament agreements to retain as many nuclear warheads as possible.

Last, but not least, he may think of familiar attention-grabbing provocations to start any future negotiations from the position of strength. Once he comes around to talks, with or without theatrics, we may see a very familiar pattern of North Korean strategy and tactics in its determined pursuit to join the nuclear club. The moment of truth will come sooner rather than later.

Yun Byung-se is former foreign minister of South Korea. He is now a board member of Korea Peace Foundation and is a member of several ex-global leaders' forums and task forces, including the Astana Forum and its Consultative Council as well as the Task Force on U.S. Allies and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


Byung Se Yun, "Art of diplomacy, the North Korean way " The Korea Times, May 27, 2021, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2021/05/113_309463.html