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North Korea has much to consider — when, and if, talks resume

North Korea has much to consider — when, and if, talks resume
© Getty Images

During a fleeting hopeful moment in the protracted Six-Party negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear programs, the North Korean news agency issued a particularly tendentious denunciation of the U.S. approach, stressing that the U.S. maintains a “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang. On that day, some 14 years ago, I asked my North Korean interlocutor what that statement meant, and why now. It took some time to explain what I was referring to, at which point the North Korean said, “Oh yes, that was today’s statement,” as if to put my mind at ease and to suggest that his government’s public statements are as perishable as summer fruit and, besides, don’t really mean that much.   

North Korea’s heated response to the Biden administration’s approach to the nuclear challenge — calling it a blunder and threatening dire consequences — no doubt conveys a certain frustration with the results of the long-awaited policy review. It also had a formulaic, retro look to it, as if it could have been written years ago, regardless of the substance of the Biden policy review.  There are no bonus points for the authors of North Korean statements for original material and no penalties for endless repetition.

What is clear at this point is that the North Koreans are not ready to talk. But it is equally obvious that it is not Pyongyang’s final word on the process. In that sense, not too much should be read into this week’s statement.

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The North Koreans never have seemed in a hurry to talk, and often act as if they have all the time in the world to consider a negotiation. But as Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnOvernight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing North Korea calls U.S.-South Korea missile development hostile policy Biden's invisible foreign policy success MORE’s recent statements about his country’s current challenges suggest, these have not been good times for North Korea. The economy continues to be in shambles, with little indication that any economic restructuring program is likely to yield results. North Korea’s struggles with COVID-19 has been as opaque as the rest of the country, but the overall picture does not suggest that good times are on the horizon or that time is on its side. Internal pressures are mounting.

The Biden administration has struck the right balance in rejecting former President TrumpDonald TrumpKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE’s expectation-raising “grand bargains,” but also in suggesting that the benign neglect of the Obama administration — “strategic patience” — is not the template to follow either. The North Korean nuclear ambition is a serious problem and will require a serious, multi-layered approach to its resolution, including vigorous efforts to defend U.S. and alliance security interests. The Biden administration has made no secret of the value it attaches to the U.S. global system of alliances, and that system very much includes the vital alliances with South Korea and Japan. North Korea often has looked to pit the U.S. against its allies. This approach seems even less likely to succeed.  

Importantly, the administration’s review and the follow-on public statements suggests that the way forward should include a central role for diplomacy, which the Americans call “negotiations,” while the Chinese prefer a word they believe somehow less threatening to the North Koreans: “dialogue.” In the context of the policy rollout, however, the Biden administration was at pains to suggest that diplomacy requires all sides in favor of it, with the implication that the U.S. is not prepared to pay to bring North Koreans back to the table. After all, there is much on the table for the North Koreans to consider, including peace treaties, mutual recognition, economic assistance and sanctions relief should they return and negotiate an end to their nuclear programs. The U.S. should not have to pay something up front, whether in sanctions relief or other measures. The quid pro quo of such measures can be found on the negotiating table, not in a supposed willingness to consent to attending talks.   

The Biden administration, while not wishing to identify any previous arrangements for the resumption of talks, has been clear about its desire to engage partners and allies in the process, while at the same time not pinning itself down to a particular format. Format often plays a lead role in diplomacy, but at this stage in the process it is singularly important to remind the North Koreans what is the essence of the talks, whatever the format. They are to end North Korean nuclear weapons ambitions. 

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions lie at the confluence of several critical issues the Biden administration faces: relationships with competitors China and Russia, relations with allies South Korea and Japan, the efficacy of the nonproliferation treaty and the approach to other nuclear wannabes, and an engaged and present foreign policy. Most importantly, a process has started.  As for the North Korean statement, they’ll have another one soon enough.

Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador, including to South Korea in 2004-05. He served as the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs 2005-09 and was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-08. He is currently the George W. Ball Adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.