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The North Korea Nuclear Crisis: A Strategy for Negotiations

Alan D. Romberg and Michael D. Swaine

After weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions, the United States and North Korea have finally revived a dialogue to resolve the ongoing confrontation over the North’s nuclear weapons program and what Pyongyang views as hostile U.S. policy toward it. The reopening of this dialogue was long overdue and constitutes only the first step in what will almost certainly prove to be an extremely arduous and prolonged process.

The structure of the Beijing talks represented a compromise. Although it maintained its insistence on “direct” talks with the United States, North Korea relented on its demand for a bilateral framework by permitting China to participate. At the same time, Washington agreed, at least for that round, to compromise on its insistence on multilateral talks in favor of the less-then-desirable trilateral format. After the first day, however, the talks stumbled over North Korea’s insistence on holding a bilateral U.S.-North Korean conversation, which the United States refused to accept. This underscores the reality that, regardless of the formal structure of any future talks, it is unlikely that agreement will be achievable or sustainable without direct discussions between Washington and Pyongyang.

Overcoming an earlier reticence to become too heavily involved, China played a critical role,1 not only facilitating the arrangement but also acting as a principal interlocutor in the trilateral meetings and in separate conversations with the U.S. and North Korean delegations after the disagreement over a bilateral U.S.-North Korean meeting. Although China was the only participant in the Beijing talks other than the North and the United States, Japan and South Korea were closely consulted and are already deeply involved in working with Washington on next steps.

Eventually, assuming dialogue continues, the United States hopes to move to a genuinely multilateral negotiation involving all five countries plus Russia. Indeed, if the discussion remains trilateral rather than either expanding to include the other players directly or contracting to become a solely bilateral U.S.-North Korean dialogue, this will present a major challenge for the United States in preserving and strengthening its strategic relationships in the region. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s official visit to Washington in mid-May will be an important step in that process.

Determining the next steps in the dialogue will be complicated by what actually transpired in Beijing, especially the North Korean delegation leader’s reported claim that the North already possesses nuclear weapons and his assertion that what happens next with those weapons depends on whether the United States negotiates sincerely on Pyongyang’s key issues. The delegate also reportedly reiterated an earlier ambiguous claim that North Korea is in the “final phase” of reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods—enough for five or six weapons worth of fissile material—that had previously been canned and placed in safe storage.

Assessing the implications of the talks will take some time, but an initial reading suggests that, while the North has chosen to brandish the nuclear card in a more open way than before, it has done so not necessarily because it intends formally to declare itself a nuclear-weapon state but rather to stimulate attention to its agenda—rejecting the U.S. position that Pyongyang must return to the status quo ante before a broader conversation can take place. Moreover, it is by no means clear that North Korea indeed possesses deliverable nuclear weapons or has completed reprocessing. Both claims might be bluffs, or at least exaggerations, designed to strengthen its hand in any subsequent dialogue.

In any event, each side has laid out its “principled” positions in Beijing, alerting the other to its bottom-line requirements. North Korea’s recent claims will no doubt stir further debate in Washington about whether the North has crossed a “red line” and, if so, how to react. The views of others—principally China and South Korea—will be critical. Beijing has already stated its position in favor of continuing diplomacy and “peaceful talks.” At this early stage, while it might hint at more coercive action and will probably insist on taking the issue to the UN Security Council, for the moment the United States would be hard put to pursue a nondiplomatic course.

Ultimate success in any future dialogue with North Korea will require the United States to reach some level of agreement with, or at least elicit tacit acceptance by, China, South Korea, Japan, and probably Russia2 on the key elements of a strategic roadmap for engaging North Korea at all stages of the negotiating process. The need for close consultation with South Korea and Japan is particularly important, given the fact that, despite their vital national interest in the outcome, they have been excluded, at least initially, from discussions with Pyongyang.

This strategic roadmap should incorporate, to the extent possible, the minimum objectives desired by all five powers in dealing with Pyongyang and their preferred responses to the North’s likely efforts to manipulate the negotiations and to avoid or minimize compliance with any agreement reached. At the same time, it should ensure that the North’s most important concerns are also addressed. This is a tall order and will require great diplomatic finesse, patience, and probably some degree of compromise on all sides.

Agreement among the five on such issues almost certainly is unlikely even in the next stage of talks with North Korea. China—and probably South Korea and Russia as well—will most likely resist agreeing early on to any specific demands beyond the desire to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons and to resolve the existing problem peacefully. At some point, however, all five powers will need to reach a basic understanding on the key specifics of the negotiation process and objectives. The alternative—an excessively general, uncoordinated, U.S.-dominated strategy possibly centered on unrealistic or unreasonable demands on the North—will almost certainly result in failed negotiations, a further escalation of tension, and perhaps a military conflict that would prove catastrophic for all parties concerned.

North Korea’s specific negotiating objectives are a matter for speculation. On the surface, Pyongyang calls for a U.S.-North Korean nonaggression treaty, U.S. respect for North Korea’s sovereignty, and U.S. willingness not to obstruct the North’s economic relations with other countries and relevant international financial institutions. In return, Pyongyang has said that it will fully satisfy U.S. concerns, presumably meaning that it is willing to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and allow U.S. inspections to verify that action. More recently, North Korea has cast some doubt on the value of a nonaggression pact and said that only a powerful physical deterrent would suffice to ward off American aggression. This has reinforced concern that Pyongyang intends to negotiate whatever security assurances it can but hold on to at least some form of a nuclear weapons program.

For the United States, any negotiating strategy must aim to achieve the complete, verifiable abandonment by North Korea of its nuclear weapons program. Despite the doubts just cited, it is by no means clear that North Korea will ultimately refuse to dismantle its nuclear program if it obtains political, security, and economic benefits sufficient to ensure regime survival for now, especially if the alternative appears to be a confrontation that could well lead to regime change. Therefore, any subsequent negotiations must be designed, first and foremost, to test the North’s willingness to give up that program. Over time, it will also be important to address the termination of any chemical and biological weapons programs and, eventually, the far broader question of reducing and redeploying conventional weapons. For the moment, however, focusing on the elimination of the nuclear weapons program and on constraining the missile delivery systems will be more than enough to handle and sufficient to quell the current crisis.

Fundamentally important, any negotiating strategy must also contain contingencies for handling various actions Pyongyang might undertake in response to U.S. negotiating offers or agreements reached, including evasion, cheating, or an outright refusal to completely dismantle its nuclear program. These actions should not be assumed, but, as the North Korean statements in Beijing make clear, they must be anticipated, and a lack of agreement among the United States and the other involved powers concerning how to respond to North Korea could easily undermine any effort to attain Washington’s minimum objectives.

This “test and response” negotiating approach will most likely require a far more comprehensive version of the 1994 Agreed Framework—one that trades formal security guarantees, economic assistance, and diplomatic recognition for a complete and verifiable abandonment of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Where the 1994 accord focused almost exclusively on one complex of facilities—plutonium producing reactors and a reprocessing plant at Yongbyon—any new agreement must be comprehensive, covering all types of potential fissile material production and including a provision to inspect any suspect sites. Implementing this entire package will not only require actions by the United States but also by the other involved countries, which is—in addition to their obvious vital security interests—why their participation is so important. As a first step, however, North Korea must agree to return to the status quo ante without compensation.

This will require an initial freeze on all activities relating to Pyongyang’s nuclear program, especially the operation of the reprocessing facility, the existing small (5 megawatt) Yongbyon research reactor, construction of two larger (50 megawatt and 200 megawatt) reactors, and any uranium-enrichment efforts. It should also include reaffirmation of an indefinite moratorium on long-range missile launches. Such actions should be accompanied by a commitment to abide by the terms of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, including the readmission of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and their monitoring equipment to Yongbyon and verifiable steps to halt efforts to procure highly enriched uranium and dismantle any uranium-enrichment facilities that might exist.

To facilitate acceptance of these conditions by Pyongyang (and to ensure the support of Beijing and Seoul), Washington should provide prior assurances that it will sincerely address each of Pyongyang’s specific concerns in subsequent talks. In practical terms, this will require the United States to back off from its refusal even to talk about its well-advertised “bold vision” for a new relationship and to lay out with some specificity the terms of that vision, even though implementation will not begin until the nuclear status quo ante is restored. Prominent among the issues the United States must address early on is the question of whether it harbors “hostile intent” toward North Korea and, even more important, the possible means available to avow credibly that it does not.

This exchange is intended to establish at least a minimum level of mutual trust prior to embarking upon efforts to attain a much more difficult set of objectives—the formulation of a “more-for-more” agreement that trades very specific types and levels of assurances and aid from the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia for the complete and irreversible elimination by North Korea of its nuclear weapons programs. This set of agreements should include the near-term dismantling of the existing Yongbyon facilities and the shipping of all existing spent fuel out of the country, as well as a comprehensive proscription on any future nuclear weapons-related activities, including associated high-explosives testing. It must also include the acceptance of adequate and reliable means to verify full compliance with these objectives.

However, amending what appears to have been the all-encompassing nature of the “more-for-more” approach as originally conceived, the negotiations should not place great weight on various demands, currently favored by some in Washington, relating to human rights, conventional weapons deployments, economic or political reforms, shorter-range ballistic missile production, or other issues unrelated to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. Such extraneous demands—however desirable in and of themselves—will certainly be rejected by Pyongyang, and even raising them in any but a perfunctory way will reduce the chances of reaching an agreement on the far more urgent issues of unconventional weapons. Moreover, they will likely undermine the level of support provided to the entire negotiating process by Beijing and Seoul.

This logic obviously applies even more so in the case of regime change. At every stage of negotiations and in every official statement of relevance, Washington should avoid conveying the impression that it ultimately seeks the collapse of the North Korean government. Otherwise, China, South Korea, and perhaps Russia as well are likely to conclude that the United States intentionally seeks to levy unacceptable demands on Pyongyang in order to justify the eventual application of highly coercive actions, including military force. Such a conclusion would of course prevent any basic understanding regarding any “more-for-more” agreement and would scuttle any prospects for gaining the necessary North Korean confidence to move forward with nuclear dismantlement.

In return for its acceptance of the basic objectives above, North Korea should be given a reliable set of security guarantees that convey a clear respect for Pyongyang’s sovereignty. Moreover, the international community—and in particular South Korea and Japan3 —must be willing to provide adequate economic and technological assistance, without any interference or limits set by Washington.4 Without such incentives, neither Beijing nor Seoul will support any larger set of negotiating objectives. More importantly, without them, it will likely prove impossible to reach any agreement with Pyongyang that tests its willingness to dismantle its nuclear programs.

At the same time, Washington should avoid mixing any security guarantee with negotiations over U.S. force reductions on the Korean Peninsula, as North Korea might demand. This would be premature and could further increase existing tensions between Seoul and Washington, given the highly sensitive nature of the U.S. force presence in South Korea. More importantly, any decisions on U.S. force reductions or redeployments should come from agreement by Washington and Seoul, based on the shared assessment of the threat they face, not from an agreement negotiated between the United States and North Korea.

Ultimately, the success of any “more-for-more” agreement will rely primarily on North Korea’s acceptance of an intrusive set of procedures verifying the complete dismantling of its existing nuclear programs and the absence of any future nuclear weapons-related activities. In particular, they must provide credible assurances that Pyongyang does not continue to carry out covert plutonium reprocessing or uranium-enrichment activities. Without North Korea’s acceptance of these procedures, Washington would neither have sufficient confidence in the arrangements nor receive sufficient political support in Congress and elsewhere for conveying a credible security guarantee to Pyongyang, thus dooming the negotiations to failure.

Yet, the issue of verification will undoubtedly prompt vigorous debate. In this debate, it will be necessary to balance what is required for confidence by the outside world with what is acceptable to Pyongyang. North Korea has already said it would allow the United States to do whatever is necessary to satisfy itself on this score. But in reality, despite recent “Track II” U.S.-North Korean experts talks on verification, Pyongyang might not be aware how high the nonproliferation experts in the U.S. government will want to set the bar, and one can predict that Washington will demand a much more intrusive level of verification than Pyongyang will readily accept. Moreover, even if the standards are agreed, it is far from clear that the United States would either want to or should take on the responsibility for verification. In theory, international inspections specified and led by the IAEA should be reassuring to all concerned. But given the North’s current antipathy toward the IAEA, one cannot automatically take the agency’s acceptability for granted.

In any event, with or without IAEA involvement, it will be essential for Washington to maximize its leverage on this issue by achieving some level of basic understanding with the other involved powers on what is required. In the absence of such an understanding, North Korea will possess a much greater ability to resist intrusive verification procedures. In order to achieve this objective, however, Washington must, in turn, not only refuse to allow the “best” to become the enemy of the “good” with regard to the stringency of inspections, it must also be willing to offer a level of security assurances to the North that the other powers (and especially China and South Korea) can endorse. Beijing and Seoul will be more likely to back a specific set of intrusive verification procedures if they are tied to a highly credible U.S. security guarantee and if the United States is not leveling excessive demands unrelated to Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Such an overall, consensus-oriented approach will likely make it easier for the United States to gain acceptance of any coercive measures, such as sanctions or other forms of coercive diplomacy, that might ultimately be deemed necessary to ensure the attainment of Washington’s minimum objectives. In other words, the other powers involved will probably be more willing to support significant sanctions on Pyongyang if they are convinced that Washington is pursuing reasonable objectives and that Pyongyang has been offered all possible reasonable incentives to comply with those objectives.

On the other hand, China and South Korea, and perhaps Russia, are unlikely to support a military strike against Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities under any set of circumstances, and only in extremis would they support a quarantine and interdiction efforts. This should not preclude U.S. consideration of such coercive measures, which should be retained as implicit options in any negotiation with the North. The United States, however, should not openly brandish the threat of military action or directly raise it with North Korea.

Instead, as it has in recent weeks, the United States should continue to convey in more rounded fashion that it will indeed retain all options in handling the situation. The credibility of this approach has been heightened in the wake of the Iraq war and the North Korean revelations in Beijing. The regional powers will now almost certainly have an increased incentive to reach a basic understanding with Washington on the overall negotiation strategy, thus enhancing the leverage they can collectively use to help bring Pyongyang to agreement.

That said, the actual application of military force to Pyongyang should be regarded by Washington as an option of last resort, contemplated only in the event that the North Korean leadership has conveyed an unalterable commitment to amass nuclear weapons and fissile materials in the face of all reasonable—and hopefully well-coordinated—efforts to dissuade it from doing so. But even under such circumstances, it is by no means clear that the advantages of launching a pre-emptive strike would outweigh the enormous costs.

Even if it forbore the catastrophic and suicidal choice of launching a “sea of fire” attack on South Korea, Pyongyang could well decide—either pre-emptively or as a first response to a U.S. strike—to launch its own strike against U.S. forces or facilities in South Korea, hoping to split the U.S.-South Korean alliance and mobilize world opinion against any further escalation by the United States. Supposing only part of this came to pass—splitting the U.S.-South Korean alliance, for example—the consequences for U.S. regional security interests would still be immeasurable. Moreover, whatever restraints were applied at first, a pre-emptive strike by either side could produce an escalatory spiral leading to a full-blown conflagration on the peninsula. Although the United States and South Korea would ultimately prevail in such a conflict, the cost in lives, property, and political relations with all the other countries concerned would almost certainly be enormous.

Washington might eventually be forced to choose between a military strike or accepting a decidedly suboptimal situation: the existence of a small North Korean nuclear arsenal and the implementation of an international quarantine and interdiction effort designed to prevent the export of any fissile material (and probably any long-range missiles) from North Korea. Some observers in Washington, including, perhaps, some in the Bush administration, promote the latter option as the only possible alternative to conflict because they believe that Pyongyang will never give up any nuclear weapons it might currently or soon possess.

This course of action, however, would be fraught with danger. Acceptance of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons could fatally weaken the global nonproliferation regime, perhaps pressuring other states in the region to acquire nuclear weapons, and would leave open the door to North Korean nuclear blackmail at some future time. Moreover, a quarantine on missile exports, which North Korea has previously depended upon as a principal source of foreign exchange, could well lead to a rapid escalation of tensions and thus raise the risks of war. In addition to this risk, a quarantine on fissile material, even if supported by China and South Korea (an absolute necessity, but by no means certain), would be extremely difficult to implement, primarily because it is almost impossible to monitor and prevent the transfer of the small amounts needed to develop a nuclear weapon.

In any case, the recently initiated dialogue should aim at avoiding such an unpalatable set of alternatives. If the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia can reach a basic understanding on how to handle North Korea, the effort to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program and accept a reasonable “more-for-more” agreement, while not easy, should enjoy a reasonable chance of success.


1. Although Pyongyang stated that China would only act as a facilitator of the talks between the United States and North Korea, in actuality, China’s role accorded much more closely with Washington’s position that China should take an active part in the discussions.

2. Russia’s direct contribution to the process is not likely to be great. For example, it will probably be unable to provide any significant material assistance to North Korea. However, it does enjoy a certain amount of access to Pyongyang and could usefully serve as an international “guarantor” for any agreements reached. For this reason, including Moscow in the diplomacy at some point will be useful.

3. Japan has another serious obstacle to overcome—North Korea’s history of abducting Japanese citizens.

4. “There is one report that North Korea demanded large-scale US economic assistance in the Beijing talks.” This would represent a change from its previous emphasis on removing U.S. obstacles to other economic relationships rather than seeking U.S. resources directly. In any event, the U.S. government itself should avoid promising any significant level of economic assistance to Pyongyang, given the likelihood that Congress will use its funding authorization power to reduce or resist entirely providing such assistance. That said, some resources are required, for example, to fund the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), and steps such as the recent Markey/Cox amendments to the energy bill (H.R. 6) denying support for the light-water reactor project could destroy any possibility of agreement.

Alan D. Romberg is a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center. Michael D. Swaine is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-director of its China program.