In June the Bush administration made its first serious proposal to end a nearly two-year-old standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program. The administration is to be commended for abandoning its “take it or leave it” position after a year of intense diplomacy and three formal rounds of negotiations. Nevertheless, Pyongyang has treated the proposal as little more than “old wine in a new bottle.”
After a mid-August informal discussion in New York among representatives of the nations involved in the six-party nuclear talks, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry declared that the United States “is, in actuality, not interested in making the dialogue fruitful but only seeks to give an impression that it makes efforts to solve the (nuclear) issue.”
Consequently, movement toward a resolution of the U.S.-North Korean nuclear impasse remains tentative at best. Progress is complicated by the onset of U.S. presidential elections and the mistrust that Washington and Pyongyang hold for each other as seen in the recent spate of insults exchanged between the leaders. There has been more than five decades without a peace treaty and more than a decade of talks and tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear aspirations. An even more serious obstacle, however, may be the lack of understanding by U.S. negotiators of the concerns and motivations of their North Korean interlocutors.
The United States’ relatively inexperienced negotiators and senior officials are all too aware of the limits and constraints that domestic politics and external realities place on their diplomatic options, but they have placed little importance on knowing their enemy. North Korea, on the other hand, boasts a seasoned negotiating team and a well-honed strategy for extracting concessions. Ensuring a favorable outcome for U.S. interests in any future talks means closing this knowledge gap.
Hawks and Doves
First and foremost, U.S. officials must not view North Korea as a monolith. The private comments of North Korean officials indicate that, like Washington, Pyongyang is no stranger to bureaucratic battles over turf and tactics between the army and the party, the military and civilians, or hard-liners and moderates. Although Kim Jong Il’s supremacy is unchallenged, he both exploits these different approaches for tactical gain and is constrained by bureaucratic rivalries and institutional commitments.
The visual contrast between Pyongyang hawks and doves is striking. North Korean generals literally wear their authority on their chests. Their uniforms are accented with broad, red strips and decorated with row upon row of bright brass medals, a display intended to excite awe and command attention. It is they who always flank Kim Jong Il on the reviewing stand whenever he shows off his hawkish side. Routinely, this is done on Armed Forces Day and on July 27, the day the Korean War armistice was signed. In North Korea, the date is celebrated as “victory over American Imperialism.” On these and other days of national commemoration, legions of North Korean troops goose-step through Kim Il Sung Plaza, their rifles raised and pointed with shiny, razor-sharp bayonets. Behind them rumble a multitude of polished tanks, mechanized artillery, and freshly painted ballistic missiles. Next come wave after wave of Korean Workers Party members carrying thousands of fluttering red flags.
The scenes are provocative and captivating. Pyongyang invites international journalists to photograph and film these displays. This greatly magnifies the impact as the pictures are broadcast around the world. The scenes arouse concern and fear in the minds of viewers in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere. Visually and mentally, such displays are designed to contrast war’s potential cost with diplomacy’s dividends. Pyongyang’s aim clearly is to intimidate and to deter potential attackers such as the United States.
Pyongyang’s dovish side is much more subdued. Easily ignored during the massive displays of military might is the uninspiring gray, four-story office building in Kim Il Sung Plaza’s northeast corner: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The appearance of North Korea’s diplomats abroad, like their building, is anything but awe inspiring. They usually appear in nondescript, dark business suits decorated only with a single “Kim Il Sung” button on the lapel. Nothing about their appearance conveys authority or political potency. The international press tends to give these usually muted diplomats only brief notice.
Like so many things in North Korea, however, appearances can be deceiving. Both sides fit together to form a tightly coordinated whole that is unwaveringly loyal to their “Supreme Commander.” Kim Jong Il deftly displays both faces of his regime’s “personality” to advance what he sees as North Korea’s interests and his survival in power.
This is not done whimsically. Civilian and military officials claim that Kim Jong Il encourages them to assert their views, even if they differ. The process generally resembles that of the “interagency” process in Washington. Key officials debate and formulate formal recommendations, which they submit to the Supreme Commander. Such a practice is consistent with the national ideology, juche (self-reliance). It allows impressive pragmatism so long as the primary concern remains “serving the Supreme Commander” and furthering the nation’s interests. Once Kim Jong Il has decided his priorities and goals, however, the matter is settled. Further debate could be considered a challenge of his authority and result in dismissal or worse.
When relations between Washington and Pyongyang are tense, which has been the case almost continuously since 2001, North Korea’s dovish side is overshadowed by its hawkish alter ego. Being out of sight, however, does not necessarily mean that they are out of Kim Jong Il’s mind. On the contrary, Pyongyang’s diplomats during such times are most likely campaigning in Beijing, Moscow, the United Nations, and even South Korea to nurture doubts about U.S. intentions and policies toward North Korea. They also are intensely engaged in garnering the economic resources and access to the international market place that Kim Jong Il desperately needs to perpetuate his regime. Engaging in negotiations with the United States, in short, although highly significant, preoccupy only a small elite element of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry.
Despite their differences in style, North Korea’s diplomats and generals share the same overriding goal: the survival of Kim Jong Il’s regime. This marks an important shift from Kim Il Sung’s Cold War priority of reunifying the Korean nation. The Soviet Union’s demise and South Korea’s democratization and industrialization have compelled Pyongyang to adjust its priorities.
As early as 1990, in fact, Kim Il Sung seemed to have settled on a dual-track strategy to ensure his regime’s longevity. Secretly, he began to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Simultaneously, he dispatched his top diplomats to defuse international hostility. A central goal of his diplomatic game plan was and remains the normalization of relations with the United States. After succeeding his father in 1994, Kim Jong Il quickly learned to deploy his generals and diplomats to shift between a hawkish readiness to defend his domain and a dovish readiness to engage in negotiations.
On the dovish track, the successes of Kim Jong Il’s diplomats in such pursuits keep them in business and Kim Jong Il tuned to their advice. In recent years, his emissaries have greatly increased his nation’s diplomatic and commercial ties around the world and brought home impressive amounts of humanitarian aid and new technology.
On the military track, debates have raged over what has motivated North Korea’s persistent pursuit of nuclear weapons. Some have argued that it wishes to use its nuclear capability as a negotiating card to engage the United States. Others contend that North Korea remains committed to using coercive diplomacy backed by a nuclear capability to promote its national interests and to sustain its ruling regime. Both views are quite credible, but they reflect conjecture in Washington more than strategic thinking in Pyongyang.
On the other hand, North Korea’s preoccupation with regaining military parity with the United States and South Korea is not conjecture. Such parity existed during the Cold War. Thanks to help from the then Soviet Union, the North Korean People’s Army had succeeded in building one of the mightiest conventional land forces in the world. Its more than 1 million-man force was equipped with the most advanced mechanized equipment.
This parity ended in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Moscow’s military aid to North Korea. Simultaneously, the U.S. use of “smart bombs” established U.S. superiority over Soviet military technology by devastating Soviet tanks and other mechanized equipment used by Iraq during the first Persian Gulf War. Most important was the end of the Soviet nuclear umbrella over North Korea. Since at least 1953, the two allies had ensured that North Korea could rely on Moscow’s nuclear deterrence capability. Soon after assuming power, the new Russian government informed its old ally in Pyongyang of its intention to revise their defense pact, and North Korea lost its Soviet nuclear umbrella.
Since then, North Korea’s hawks have resisted a diplomatic accord that would phase out the nation’s budding nuclear capability while its foremost adversary was able to retain the same capability. The doves have contended that such agreements would better ensure the survival of the ruling regime by giving it access to the international community and the resources it needs. Whether this North Korean debate has ended remains unclear.
Risks of Diplomacy
In this environment, striking a diplomatic deal with the United States poses profound risks for Kim Jong Il. North Korea’s leader, diplomats, and generals agree that the United States is their worst enemy and greatest threat. President George W. Bush’s prior public calls for regime change in North Korea and forceful toppling of the Hussein regime have only deepened this conviction. Given this perspective, and his generals’ belief that they can again defeat “American imperialism” as they believe they did in the Korean War, Kim Jong Il wants to avoid any appearance of bowing to the United States.
Yet, until recently, U.S. officials seemed to expect Kim Jong Il to place his full trust in his foremost critic, Bush. For three-and-a-half years, Bush demanded that Kim Jong Il unilaterally, “completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantle” (CVID) North Korea’s entire arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Washington further demanded that Kim Jong Il accept a so-called Libyan solution, which means conceding to all of Bush’s demands without being assured anything in return until this process is complete.
From Kim Jong Il’s point of view, such a demand is unacceptable. It requires that he first trust his enemy more than his generals. It also requires that he order his politically potent generals unilaterally to give up the awesome arsenal that Kim Jong Il and his father ordered them to build to defend their nation and his regime. Although Kim Jong Il appears confident in his generals’ loyalty, his hesitancy about striking a deal suggests uncertainty about two key concerns: whether he can trust Bush and, secondly, whether he can trust his generals’ longer-term willingness to comply with the terms of such a negotiated settlement.
Nor would it seem politically astute for either Kim Jong Il’s generals or diplomats to advocate unilateral disarmament as they might promptly be deemed traitors. Acceptance of Washington’s terms would expose their nation to the unrestrained might of its most powerful enemy. Similarly, Kim Jong Il could arouse doubts about his future intentions were he to ignore their advice and bow to Washington’s demands.
If a diplomatic deal is to be struck, North Korea’s diplomats face formidable challenges. They must convince the United States and its allies to give them something of significance to their Supreme Commander. Only then can they convince him and his generals that they are indeed working to promote the nation’s security and to prolong the regime. Without their Supreme Commander’s trust and political support, North Korea’s diplomats are politically too impotent to strike any negotiated deal.
Yet, in part because of a combination of pressure and economic inducements from Beijing, plus some from Seoul and Tokyo, Kim Jong Il since September 2003 has shown a preference for pursuing a negotiated settlement. A second and possibly equally potent motivation is Kim Jong Il’s realization that war with the United States would inevitably end his regime.
Moreover, Washington’s recent proposal may have made a negotiated settlement more likely. The recent U.S. proposal calls for a two-phase process in which North Korea would receive fuel oil from China, South Korea, and Russia after agreeing to first freeze, then dismantle its nuclear programs. The United States and the other parties to the talks would also draft a multilateral security agreement and begin surveying North Korea’s energy needs. Additionally, Washington would begin bilateral discussions with North Korea on the removal of U.S. sanctions. The benefits spelled out in the proposal could then be withdrawn if North Korea did not comply.
Still, given the timing of the Bush administration’s offer, only five months before a presidential election, and the obvious hostility between Pyongyang and Washington, North Korea is not likely to alter its stance in the forthcoming talks. Having had only two leaders during its half-century of history, North Korean negotiators prize consistency in a diplomatic partner and have been dismayed by the ups-and-downs of U.S. policy. Given the shifts in policy that have come with each new U.S. administration—engagement with the elder Bush’s administration, deeper engagement under Clinton, and then a pullback under the current Bush administration—Pyongyang has ample reason to fear that a commitment by one U.S. administration might not endure during the next president’s tenure.
Such hesitation is evident in Pyongyang’s reaction to Washington’s most recent offer, which left many there wondering, “Is Washington making a temporary adjustment or a strategic shift?” Unless this is clarified to Pyongyang’s satisfaction, progress at the next round of talks in September 2004 is unlikely.
North Korea’s basic goal in any negotiation is to achieve maximum gains for minimum concessions. The process begins by appearing “hard to get,” avoiding any appearance of eagerness to engage in negotiations. This tactic is evident now as Kim Jong Il probably hopes such a strategy will cause Beijing and Seoul to increase the economic value of their inducements for North Korea’s participation in the talks. Pyongyang has intentionally maintained ambiguity regarding its future intentions and goals. This ambiguity surrounds its actual nuclear capability—whether it has reprocessed all 8,100 nuclear spent fuel rods, whether it possesses a uranium-enrichment program—as well as whether it intends to test any nuclear weapons.
All the while, Pyongyang has kept the door to negotiations open by proclaiming its willingness to “put everything on the table” in direct negotiations with the United States. This posturing has several purposes. Pyongyang is striving to keep Washington off balance while appealing to China and other nations’ concerns. Pyongyang also plays off the other side’s vulnerabilities. Pyongyang points to the United States’ reluctance to negotiate as the primary impediment to progress while declaring that it is the victim of a hostile U.S. policy and that it really would like to negotiate a peaceful resolution.
Pyongyang also is searching for Washington’s bottom line. Given Bush’s commitment to achieve a “peaceful diplomatic solution” and continuing preoccupation with Iraq, Pyongyang believes that the Bush administration will eventually engage in negotiations. The questions it wants answered are when will bilateral negotiations begin and how much is Washington willing to give North Korea in exchange for giving up its nuclear ambitions.
North Korea’s diplomats always demand more than they can realistically expect to obtain. During negotiations, they “struggle” intensely to achieve these unrealistic goals. They do so less out of the expectation that they will get everything that they demand. Instead, their more likely goal is to impress their “Great Leader” Kim Jong Il with their sincerity and devotion to him. Ultimately, when the other side appears to have exhausted its flexibility, Pyongyang’s leadership directs that the “struggle” cease so it can consolidate its gains before starting a new negotiating cycle. Yet, equally important to achieving its desired results is the atmosphere Pyongyang strives to create surrounding the negotiations. This process begins at home.
Arguably the best indication that Kim Jong Il is willing to engage in substantive negotiations to resolve the second nuclear crisis was his dispatch of members of North Korea’s “diplomatic dream team” (see sidebar) to Beijing in February and June 2004 to participate in the six-party talks. Heading the North Korean delegation was Kim Gye Gwan, his deputy Li Gun, and Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Han Song Ryol.
After a half century of animosity, the normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations is long overdue. Before any negotiations can begin to achieve progress toward a diplomatic solution, both sides must first build a foundation of mutual trust and understanding. Even the deeply troubled U.S.-Soviet relationship had a tradition of mutual trust rooted in their shared experience of defeating Adolf Hitler during World War II. Between 1945 and 1990, each nation educated a generation of experts who understood the other side and could advise leaders and negotiators how best to negotiate.
Right now, there is no similar basis in the U.S.-North Korean relationship. North Korea has fostered a team of “American experts” who are impressively equipped to engage and negotiate with the United States. The U.S. government, however, has not formed a similar team of North Korea experts, and those who worked with Pyongyang in the Clinton and elder Bush administrations have been largely excluded from the halls of power during the current administration.
The six-party talks have been extremely valuable in this regard. The participants have discovered that they share the common goals of achieving a peaceful, negotiated end to nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula as well as a nuclear-free peninsula. The primary antagonists, however, the United States and North Korea, have yet to have sufficient trust in each other to engage in bilateral negotiations.
So, once and if bilateral U.S.-North Korean talks commence, North Korean diplomats will have the upper hand, at least initially. They are experienced negotiators while their U.S. counterparts have been denied the opportunity to negotiate. The North Koreans are well versed in U.S. diplomacy, strategy, culture, and language. The Americans are largely novices when it comes to North Korea. The North Koreans will share a common goal and strategy. The Americans, however, may not be able to do the same. Their goal of disarming North Korea is shared, but not necessarily their strategy for attaining that goal.
Reaching an agreement with Pyongyang that will pass muster on Capitol Hill, in the press, and in the executive branch will be extraordinarily difficult. Without a better understanding by U.S. negotiators of their North Korean counterparts, it might well be impossible. The time to close the knowledge gap is now.
1. The content of this article reflects the author’s experiences between 1992 and 2004 in dealing with North Koreans. In September 1992, he was the Department of State’s sole officer responsible for North Korean issues, continuing through the 1993-1994 U.S.-North Korean nuclear negotiations as the first U.S. official representative posted to North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center (where the author lived and worked during much of 1995) and as a negotiator with the North Korean People’s Army concerning the recovery of U.S. soldiers’ remains left behind in North Korea during the Korean War. Specific dates and titles were confirmed in published directories such as East Asia: Biographical Information on DPRK Figures (Foreign Broadcast Information Service [FBIS], 1995) and North Korea Directory (Radiopress, 1989-2002) and in the FBIS generally.
2. An extensive library is available regarding the U.S.-North Korean nuclear impasse: Peter Hayes, American Nuclear Dilemmas in Korea (Toronto: Lexington Books, 1991); Mitchell Reiss, Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995); Leon Sigal, Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy With North Korea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Scott Snyder, Negotiating on the Edge (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1999); James Clay Moltz and Alexandre Mansourov, The North Korean Nuclear Program (New York and London: Routledge, 2000); David Albright and Kevin O’Neill, eds., Solving the North Korean Nuclear Puzzle (Washington, DC: Institute for Science and International Security, 2000); Henry Sokolski, ed., Planning for a Peaceful Korea (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2001); Selig Harrison, Korean Endgame (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); and Robert Gallucci, Daniel Poneman, and Joel Wit, Going Critical (Brookings Institute, 2004).
Pyongyang's "Diplomatic Dream Team"
Pyongyang’s negotiators are a diplomatic “dream team” handpicked by titular head of state Kim Yong Nam and his deputy Kang Sok Ju, first vice minister of foreign affairs.
A Hierarchy of Negotiators
Kim Yong Nam—The Decision-Maker
Kang Sok Ju—The Strategist
Kim Gye Gwan—Chief Delegate
Li Gun – Kim Gye Gwan’s Deputy
Han Song Ryol – Link to Washington
Dr. C. Kenneth Quinones is a retired diplomat and the author of numerous articles and books about U.S. relations with North and South Korea, including Beyond Negotiations—Implementation of the Agreed Framework (Tokyo: Chuokoronshinsha, 2003); and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding North Korea (New York: The Penguin Group, 2004) with Joseph Tragert. He served as the Department of State’s North Korea affairs officer from 1992 to 1994 and then as de facto liaison officer with North Korea from 1995 to 1997. He currently serves as an adviser to and representative of the U.S. humanitarian effort on North Korea issues. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.