Getting What We Need With North Korea

April 2016

By Leon V. Sigal

While Washington’s chattering classes were all atwitter about North Korean nuclear testing and rocket launching and China’s backing for UN sanctions against Pyongyang in recent months, U.S. diplomats were tiptoeing to the negotiating table.

Any chance of a nuclear deal with North Korea depends on giving top priority to stopping the North’s arming even if that means having Pyongyang keep the handful of weapons it has for the foreseeable future. Success will also require probing Kim Jong Un’s seriousness about ending enmity, starting with a peace process on the Korean peninsula.

The revelation that Washington was willing to talk to Pyongyang without preconditions was a surprise to those who had not been tracking the evolution of U.S. policy closely. The Department of State confirmed that the United States held talks in New York last fall and rejected a proposal to begin negotiating a peace treaty. “To be clear, it was the North Koreans who proposed discussing a peace treaty,” department spokesman John Kirby said on February 21. “We carefully considered their proposal, and made clear that denuclearization had to be part of any such discussion. The North rejected our response.”1

Intriguingly, the revelation came on the eve of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Washington. Four days earlier, while signaling China’s support for UN sanctions, Wang had made a more negotiable proposal of his own: “As chair country for the six-party talks, China proposes talks toward both achieving denuclearization and replacing the armistice agreement with a peace treaty.” The proposal, Wang said, was intended to “find a way back to dialogue quickly.”2

Wang’s proposal was consistent with the September 19, 2005, six-party joint statement, which called for “the directly related parties” to “negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum.”3 Those parties included the three countries with forces on the peninsula—North Korea, South Korea, and the United States—and China. They, along with Japan and Russia, agreed in six-party talks in September 2005 on the aim of “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” to be negotiated in parallel with a peace process in Korea and bilateral U.S.-North Korean and Japanese-North Korean talks on political and economic normalization.

Wang’s initiative was also a way to bridge the gap between Washington and Pyongyang. North Korea has long sought a peace treaty. Its position hardened, however, after Washington, backed by Seoul and Tokyo, demanded preconditions—“pre-steps” in diplomatic parlance—to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization before talks could begin. In response, Pyongyang began insisting that a peace treaty had to precede any denuclearization.

The Chinese proposal is a testament that sanctions are unlikely to curb North Korean nuclear and missile programs and that negotiation, however difficult, is the only realistic way forward. So is Washington’s newfound openness to talks with Pyongyang.

Many in Washington and Seoul, however, still contend that negotiation is pointless if North Korea remains unwilling to give up the handful of crude nuclear weapons it has. That premise ignores the potential danger that an unbounded weapons program in North Korea poses to U.S. and allied security.

It also ignores the possibility that Pyongyang may be willing to suspend its nuclear and missile programs if its security concerns are satisfied. That was the gist of its January 9, 2015, offer of “temporarily suspending the nuclear test over which the U.S. is concerned” if the United States “temporarily suspends joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity this year.”4

Like most opening bids, it was unacceptable. Instead of probing it further, however, Washington rejected it out of hand—within hours—and publicly denounced it as an “implicit threat.”5 That was a mistake Washington would not repeat in the fall.

Unofficial contacts later that January indicated that Pyongyang was prepared to suspend not just nuclear testing, but also missile and satellite launches and fissile material production. In return, the North was willing to accept a toning-down of the scale and scope of U.S.-South Korean exercises instead of the cancellation it had sought. This underscored the need for reciprocal steps to improve both sides’ security.

Those contacts might have opened the way to talks at that time, but the initiative was squelched in Washington. Instead, U.S. officials continued to insist Pyongyang had to take unilateral steps to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearizing and ruled out reciprocity by Washington. Their stance was based on the flawed premise that the North alone had failed to live up to past agreements.6 As Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, put it on February 4, “North Korea does not have the right to bargain, to trade or ask for a pay-off in return for abiding by international law.”7 This crime-and-punishment approach, however warranted by North Korean flouting of international law, has never stopped North Korea from arming in the past, and it is unrealistic to think it would work now.

Tiptoeing Toward Talks

Last September 18, U.S. negotiator Sung Kim dropped Washington’s preconditions for talks while still insisting that the agenda would be pre-steps North Korea would have to take to reassure Washington before formal negotiations could begin. “When we conveyed to Pyongyang that we are open to dialogue to discuss how we can resume credible and meaningful negotiations, of course we meant it. It was not an empty promise. We are willing to talk to them,” Kim said. “And frankly for me, whether that discussion takes place in Pyongyang, or some other place, is not important. I think what’s important is for us to be able to sit down with them and hear directly from them that they are committed to denuclearization and that if and when the six-party talks resume, they will work with us in meaningful and credible negotiations towards verifiable denuclearization.”8 In short, Washington would sit down with Pyongyang without preconditions in order to discuss U.S.  preconditions for negotiations. That opened the door to contacts with the North Koreans in the New York channel in November.

In a November 3 interview, North Korean Foreign Ministry official Jong Tong Hak hinted at what the North might be proposing behind the scenes in New York. He said a permanent peace settlement on the Korean peninsula first required a North Korean-U.S. “peace agreement,” perhaps a declaration committing the sides to negotiate peace. That was an advance. It was accompanied by a step backward from previous North Korean positions: “If the American government is serious about respecting the sovereignty of the DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and ending its ongoing hostile policy against the DPRK then it can be solved very easily between the two sides.”9 The apparent exclusion of South Korea made that proposal a nonstarter even if the North had been ready to suspend its nuclear and missile programs.

Sung Kim reiterated the U.S. position on November 10. “I think for us it’s pretty straightforward: If [the North Koreans are] willing to talk about the nuclear issue and how we can move towards meaningful productive credible negotiations, [the United States would be] happy to meet with them anytime, anywhere,” he said. He went on to respond to Jong obliquely: “It’s not that we have no interest in seeking a permanent peace regime, peace mechanism or peace treaty. But I think they have the order wrong. Before we can get to a peace mechanism to replace the armistice, I think we need to make significant progress on the central issue of denuclearization.”10 The armistice agreement, signed in July 1953, established a cease-fire in the Korean War “until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”11 That has yet to happen.

The Obama administration deserves praise for agreeing to meet in New York to explore what the North Koreans had in mind and not to reject a peace process out of hand. Disappointingly, North Korea proved unready to discuss denuclearization, which is stymieing talks for now.

The Limits of Sanctions

North Korea’s January 6 nuclear test and February 7 satellite launch spurred more-stringent sanctions at the UN Security Council and in Washington. Even worse, the sanctions revived dreams of a North Korean collapse in Seoul, dreams that jeopardize a peace process.

Sanctions might have helped bring Iran around to negotiating, but North Korea is no Iran. It is far more autarkic and less dependent on trade with the rest of the world. It has no big-ticket items such as oil that require access to the global banking system to transact business.

An offer to ease sanctions may be of some utility in negotiations with Pyongyang, as it was with Tehran. The latest sanctions will squeeze Pyongyang but not enough to compel it to knuckle under and accept Washington’s preconditions for negotiating. If anything, Pyongyang’s nuclear advances have enhanced its leverage and given it greater confidence to proceed with negotiations on its own terms.

Wang and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged as much in their February 23 joint press conference announcing their agreement to move ahead on sanctions and negotiations. “China would like to emphasize that the Security Council resolution cannot provide a fundamental solution to the Korean nuclear issue. To really do that, we need to return to the track of dialogue and negotiation. And the secretary and I discussed this many times, and we agree on this,” Wang said. Kerry echoed him, saying that the goal “is not to be in a series of cycling, repetitive punishments. That doesn’t lead anywhere. The goal is to try to get Kim Jong Un and the DPRK to recognize that…it can rejoin the community of nations, it can actually ultimately have a peace agreement with the United States of America that resolves the unresolved issues of the Korean peninsula, if it will come to the table and negotiate the denuclearization.”12 Once again, news reports focused on China’s willingness to endorse sanctions without paying attention to the U.S. commitment to negotiations.

Kirby, the State Department spokesman, improved that formulation on March 3: “We haven’t ruled out the possibility that there could sort of be some sort of parallel process here. But—and this is not a small ‘but’—there has to be denuclearization on the peninsula and work through the six-party process to get there.”13

Many in Washington may question whether Beijing will enforce UN-mandated sanctions. By the same token, many in Beijing may wonder whether Washington will keep its commitment to negotiate.

Focus on the Urgent

North Korea’s January 6 nuclear test, its fourth, was nothing to disparage. Even if it was neither a hydrogen bomb nor a boosted energy device, the test likely advanced Pyongyang’s effort to develop a compact nuclear warhead that it can deliver by missile.

That is not all. The North has restarted its reactor at Yongbyon, which is working fitfully to generate more plutonium. It also is moving to complete a new reactor and has expanded its uranium-enrichment capacity. It has paraded two new longer-range missiles, the Musudan and KN-08, which it has yet to test-launch, and it is developing its first solid-fueled missile, the short-range Toksa.

That makes stopping the North’s nuclear and missile programs a matter of urgency. Doing so should take priority over eliminating the handful of nuclear weapons Pyongyang already has, however desirable that may be. Such a negotiating approach is also more likely to bear fruit, given Kim Jong Un’s goals.

What Is in It for Kim?

For nearly three decades, Pyongyang has sought to reconcile—end enmity—with Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo or, in the words of the 1994 Agreed Framework, “move toward full political and economic normalization.”14 To that end, it was prepared to suspend its weapons program or ramp it up if the other parties thwarted the reconciliation effort. Although North Korea’s nuclear and missile brinkmanship is well understood, it is often forgotten that, from 1991 to 2003, North Korea reprocessed no fissile material and conducted very few test launches of medium- or long-range missiles. It suspended its weapons programs again from 2007 to early 2009.

U.S. negotiators need to probe whether an end to enmity remains Kim Jong Un’s aim. He is not motivated by economic desperation, as many in Seoul and Washington believe. On the contrary, his economy has been growing over the past decade. Yet, he has publicly staked his rule on improving his people’s standard of living, unlike his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il. To deliver on his pledge, he needs to divert investment from military production to civilian goods.

That was the basis of his so-called byungjin, or “strategic line on carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously under the prevailing situation,”15 meaning as long as U.S. “hostile policy” persists.

To curb military spending, Kim needs a calm international environment. Failing that, he will strengthen his deterrent, reducing the need for greater spending on conventional forces—a Korean version of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s bigger bang for the buck.

Pushback from the military on the budget may explain what prompted him to have his defense minister executed last spring.16 It may also account for Kim Jong Un’s exaggerated claims about testing an “H-bomb” in January. By crediting the party and the government, not the National Defense Commission, for the test, he was putting the military in its place.17 The role that nuclear weapons play in putting a cap on defense spending was explicit in his March 9 claim of a “miniaturized” warhead deliverable by missile, which he called “a firm guarantee for making a breakthrough in the drive for economic construction and improving the people’s standard of living on the basis of the powerful nuclear war deterrent.”18

If Kim Jong Un still wants a fundamentally transformed relationship with his enemies or a calmer international climate in order to improve economic conditions in his country, a peace process is his way forward.

Probing for Peace

Testing whether North Korea means what it says about a peace process is also in the security interests of the United States and its allies, especially now that North Korea has nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s March 2010 sinking of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, in retaliation for the fatal November 2009 South Korean shooting up of a North Korean naval vessel in the contested waters of the West (Yellow) Sea showed that steps taken by each side to bolster deterrence can cause armed clashes. So did North Korea’s November 2010 artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island in reprisal for South Korea’s live-fire exercise. A peace process could reduce the risk of such clashes.

Negotiating a peace treaty is a formidable task. To be politically meaningful, it would require normalization of diplomatic, social, and economic relations and rectification of land and sea borders, whether those borders are temporary, pending unification, or permanent. To be militarily meaningful, it would require changes in force postures and war plans that pose excessive risks of unintended war on each side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas. That would mean, above all, redeployment of the North’s forward-deployed artillery and short-range missiles to the rear, putting Seoul out of range. Yet, to the extent Pyongyang would see that redeployment as weakening its deterrent against attack, it might be more determined to keep its nuclear arms.

A peace treaty is unlikely without a more amicable political environment. One way to nurture that environment is a peace process, using a series of interim peace agreements as stepping stones to a treaty. Such agreements, with South Korea and the United States as signatories, would constitute token acknowledgment of Pyongyang’s sovereignty. In return, North Korea would have to take a reciprocal step by disabling and then dismantling its nuclear and missile production facilities.

A first step could be a “peace declaration.” Signed by North Korea, South Korea, and the United States and perhaps China, Japan, and Russia, such a document would declare an end to enmity by reiterating the language of the October 12, 2000, U.S.-North Korean joint communiqué stating that “neither government would have hostile intent toward the other” and confirming “the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity.” It could also commit the three parties to commence a peace process culminating in the signing of a peace treaty. The declaration could be issued at a meeting of the six foreign ministers.

A second step long sought by Pyongyang is the establishment of a “peace mechanism” to replace the Military Armistice Commission set up to monitor the cease-fire at the end of the Korean War. This peace mechanism could serve as a venue for resolving disputes such as the 1994 North Korea downing of a U.S. reconnaissance helicopter that strayed across the DMZ or the 1996 incursion by a North Korean spy submarine that ran aground in South Korean waters while dropping off agents. The peace mechanism would include the United States and the two Koreas.

The peace mechanism also could serve as the venue for negotiating a series of agreements on specific confidence-building measures, whether between the North and South, between the North and the United States, or among all three parties. A joint fishing area in the West Sea, as agreed in principle in the October 2007 North-South summit meeting, is one. Naval confidence-building measures such as “rules of the road” and a navy-to-navy hotline are also worth pursuing.

Lacking satellite reconnaissance, North Korea has conducted surveillance by infiltrating agents into the South. An “open skies” agreement allowing reconnaissance flights across the DMZ by both sides might reduce that risk. In October 2000, Kim Jong Il offered to end exports, production, and deployment of medium- and longer-range missiles. In return, he wanted the United States to launch North Korean satellites, along with other compensation. A more far-reaching arrangement might be to set up a joint North-South watch center that could download real-time data from U.S. or Japanese reconnaissance satellites. It is unclear how much such confidence-building measures will reduce the risk of inadvertent war, but they would provide political reassurance of an end to enmity.

A Starting Point

Before the sides can get to a peace process, they need to take steps to rebuild some trust. For Washington, that means verifiable suspension of all of North Korea’s nuclear tests, missile and satellite launches, and fissile material production. For Pyongyang, that means an easing of what it calls U.S. “hostile policy,” starting with a toning-down of joint military exercises, partial relaxation of sanctions, and some commitment to initiating a peace process. Such reciprocal steps could lead to resumption of parallel negotiations among the six parties as envisioned in their September 2005 joint statement.

If the two sides can avoid deadly clashes triggered by the current joint military exercises, they may get back to exploring the only realistic off-ramp from the current impasse: reciprocal steps to open the way to negotiations that would address denuclearization and a peace process in Korea. That, however, would require a change of heart in Pyongyang, Seoul, and Washington. As the Rolling Stones put it, “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes, well you just might find/You get what you need.” 


1.   “U.S. Rejected Peace Talks Before Last Nuclear Test,” Reuters, February 21, 2016.

2.   Lee Je-hun, “Could Wang’s Two-Track Proposal Lead to a Breakthrough?” Hankyoreh, February 19, 2016.

3.   U.S. Department of State, “Six-Party Talks, Beijing, China,” n.d., (text of the joint statement of the fourth round of six-party talks on September 19, 2005).

4.   Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), KCNA Report, January 10, 2015,

5.   Marie Harf, transcript of U.S. Department of State daily briefing, January 12, 2015,

6.   On the history of reneging by various parties, see Leon V. Sigal, “How to Bring North Korea Back Into the NPT,” in Nuclear Proliferation and International Order, ed. Olaf Njolstad (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 65-82.

7.   “US: No Sign Yet NKorea Serious on Nuke Talks,” Associated Press, February 4, 2015.

8.   Chang Jae-soon and Roh Hyo-dong, “U.S. Nuclear Envoy Willing to Hold Talks With N. Korea in Pyongyang,” Yonhap, September 19, 2015.

9.   “N. Korea Accuses U.S. of ‘Nuclear Blackmail,’” Associated Press, November 4, 2015.

10.   Chang Jae-soon, “Amb. Sung Kim: U.S. ‘Happy to Meet’ With N. Korean ‘Anytime, Anywhere,’” Yonhap, November 11, 2015.

11.   Armistice Agreement for the Restoration of the South Korean State, North Korea-U.S., July 27, 1953, 4 U.S.T. 234.

12.   U.S. Department of State, remarks of Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Washington, DC, February 23, 2016,

13.    John Kirby, transcript of U.S. Department of State daily briefing, March 3, 2016,

14.   Bureau of Arms Control, U.S. Department of State, “Agreed Framework Between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” October 21, 1994,

15.   KCNA, “Report on Plenary Meeting of WPK Central Committee,” March 31, 2013,

16.   “N. Korean Ex-Army Chief ‘Locked Horns With Technocrats,’” Chosun Ilbo, May 15, 2015,

17.   KCNA, “DPRK Proves Successful in H-Bomb Test,” January 6, 2016,; KCNA, “WPK Central Committee Issues Order to Conduct First H-Bomb Test,” January 6, 2016,

18.   KCNA, “Kim Jong-un Guides Work for Mounting Nuclear Warheads on Ballistic Rockets,” March 9, 2016,;jsessionid=823D154834DB0E5032E668C39EDE74B3.

Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York and author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy With North Korea (1998). A portion of this article draws from a piece that appeared in the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability’s NAPSNet Policy Forum.