Negotiations with North Korea: Squeezing us to the last drop

Negotiations with North Korea: Squeezing us to the last drop
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Squeeze to the very last drop — of concessions, determination, patience, the ticking time.

Surely this is a mainstay ethos of North Korea’s broader strategy in dealing with the United States. In the past year of its diplomacy — solidifying Kim Jong Un’s propping alliances, punctuated by disciplinary warnings to Seoul and Washington to pull their own respective weights in leveling out the agreements reached during the 2018 summits — Kim and his trusted peace brokers have pressed and vised their dialogue counterparts as such.

For a regime unwavering to its existential cause for three generations, this beguiling art of suspense and easement is a mastered act that can be put on without blemish in a snap-notice. Much like Pyongyang’s goosebump-inducing, eerily-perfect Mass Games performances.

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For Pyongyang’s counterparts, on the other hand, the challenge of coordination across policy lines and national interests, in addition to the periodic leadership changeover and fading recollection of past engagements of the same ilk with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), pose cement-hardened hurdles to rallying behind a cohesive, contiguous and well-orchestrated approach in dealing with the Kim regime.

Kim Yong Chol’s two-day visit to Washington beginning Jan. 17 — a nine-person delegation put up at Dupont Circle Hotel — was low-key, notwithstanding the usual media attention such an awaited, senior-level visit would merit. After holding meetings with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBolton replacement inherits tough challenges — including Trump Saudi Arabia says it will take 'appropriate' action if Iran's role in attacks confirmed Clarence Thomas, Joe Manchin, Rudy Giuliani among guests at second state visit under Trump MORE, special representative Stephen Biegun and President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE, the delegation quietly flew out of Dulles, Beijing-bound, on Jan. 19. Around dinnertime on the 18th, a South Korean television crew spotted Kim and his entourage — including Kim Song-hye, head of the North’s United Front Department, and Pak Chol, who heads the DPRK’s Korea Asia Pacific Committee — discreetly heading out of the hotel (located blocks away from Embassy Row) and returning two hours later.

Kim passed the baton to his colleague, Choe Son-hui, who held working-level meetings with her U.S. and South Korean counterparts on the sidelines of an international conference in Sweden. As has been noted, this marked the first time Choe met with Biegun since the Trump administration designated the latter as the special representative to North Korea. After a series of two- and three-way meetings, the delegates of Pyongyang, Washington and Seoul departed Sweden. Sweden’s Foreign Ministry described the meetings as “constructive”; South Korea’s Yonhap painted the talks under a similar light, noting the role of its special representative Lee Do-hoon as the “arbitrator” between Choe and Biegun. As of Jan. 22, North Korea replaced Choe with Kim Hyok-chol, former ambassador to Spain, to negotiate with Washington.

Yet the discussion on the crux of the negotiations — denuclearization — remains largely putative. Wandering resolve, liquefying patience, and the unstated, (self-)imposed timeline to reach an agreement with North Korea in recent months have broadened the terms of denuclearization and the measurement of success in our negotiations with Pyongyang. Washington has glided back in its demands — first an ultimatum of “complete denuclearization” accompanied by timelines modified several times, to signaling that the administration is not in any rush, to changing the lingo from “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) to “final, fully verified denuclearization” (FFVD) and now, a concept muddied in between.

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In some spheres, Korea-watchers express consternation that the United States would be willing to accept a nuclear freeze or a cessation of missile development activities in exchange for what some describe as incentives — relaxing of sanctions pressure, humanitarian assistance, a Pyongyang-Washington liaison channel, a drawdown of U.S. troops stationed in Seoul, or a declaration to end the Korean War. That Pyongyang was given a glimpse of concessions long before it has taken affirmative steps toward denuclearization only affirms to Kim the timelessness and proven success of his family’s recipe for bluster and extortion. The return of American POW remains, theatrical collapse of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site before a bevy of international journalists, and the North’s temporary restraint on nuclear and missile tests for 13 months stop short of putting the DPRK on an unreturnable path toward denuclearization.

Lightening the demarcation on denuclearization and redefining success in negotiations with Pyongyang could signal a lowering of the bar on U.S. acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Critically, it can suggest wavering on the part of Washington’s ability to secure Pyongyang’s binding, accountable commitment to disarm. That we are considering accepting a nuclear freeze or a similar partial agreement in exchange for rewards of peace — concessions with far-reaching consequences on the Korean Peninsula and beyond — situates Kim in a comfortable seat of confidence as he gears up for Encounter 2.0 with Trump.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ recent report on another undisclosed North Korean missile base, in addition to revealing the DPRK’s ongoing missile activity and previously undisclosed sites, again underscores the need for a complete, thorough, encompassing agreement and reminds Washington of the security and diplomatic implications of entering into a less-than-comprehensive nuclear deal with North Korea. The White House publicly maintains its position to continue pressuring Pyongyang with sanctions until the regime takes affirmative steps toward denuclearization, but gradually these buttons may be unclasped to reward North Korea’s “good” behavior.

North Korea’s permutation of negotiating behavior seems once again to be the tried-and-true technique in gradually attenuating its opponents’ determination and thinning their patience through protracted delivery and other time-buying ruses. A couple more gravitational pulls to ultimately attain legitimization as a nuclear state, and then, what next? Wittingly or otherwise, it appears that Washington — enervated and perhaps in want of an “out” — is closer to entertaining greater leniency toward Pyongyang.

Good to the last drop for Kim.

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime's leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program. Follow her on Twitter @mllesookim.