Two years into the Obama administration — after detonating a nuclear weapon, test-firing long-range ballistic missiles, killing dozens of South Korean sailors in an unprovoked torpedo strike, unveiling a long-denied uranium enrichment facility, and murdering South Korean civilians in a daylight artillery attack that was broadcast globally — Pyongyang has decided to return to the negotiation tables.
With China’s backing, North Korea is vigorously campaigning to draw the United States into another round of “six-party talks,” the multilateral deliberations on North Korean “denuclearization” first convened in 2003.
American officials appear increasingly receptive; this weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to visit South Korea, purportedly to test the waters with this key U.S. ally about a possible diplomatic reengagement with the North.
But if Obama’s North Korea team really expects to settle some of its many differences with the North, it is in for a rude awakening. Pyongyang shows no intention of being ready to compromise with Washington. Quite the contrary: There is every reason to believe the North Korean regime regards new talks as an avenue for achieving permanent ratification of its status as a nuclear weapons state and for pressing demands for stunning new strategic concessions from Washington.
Pyongyang’s intentions were made clear last month at a three-day gathering in Germany between an official North Korean foreign ministry delegation, headed by Ambassador Ri Gun, and an unofficial American group of which I was a member. In our protracted, in-depth discussions, the North Korean officials detailed their government’s position on all the major issues they wished to bring up with Washington — and clarified the meaning of many critical official North Korean formulations that are unfamiliar or mysterious to American ears.
To begin, take the notion of “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” This means getting rid of nukes in North Korea, right? Wrong! North Korean pronouncements have repeatedly said this means getting rid of nukes for both Koreas. Pyongyang won’t take America’s word that it removed all tactical nuclear weapons from South Korean territory decades ago: It wants to conduct continuous, intrusive inspections throughout South Korea, including at U.S. and Korean military facilities, to “verify” this.
As long as South Korea is protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the North argues, the country is not “denuclearized.” Thus, true “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, it says, must mean the end of American nuclear assurances for Seoul — and of the military alliance under which the assurances were provided as well.
And given what Pyongyang posits is the “U.S. hostile policy” toward the North — a centerpiece of the regime’s ideology and rhetoric — its leadership cannot feel secure unless U.S. nuclear weapons anywhere near the Korean Peninsula are eliminated. Thus, the U.S.-Japan military alliance has to be scrapped, too.
In fact, as long as nuclear weapons that might theoretically be used in defense of South Korea exist anywhere in the world, denuclearization for North Korea is a nonstarter.
So, for the immediate future, the denuclearization of North Korea is off the table: North Korea is a declared nuclear weapons state and has served notice that it will continue to amass a nuclear arsenal until Pyongyang’s definition of “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” might come to pass.
In other words, North Korean denuclearization is out of the question: If Pyongyang is to talk about nukes with America, the topic will have to be mutual arms reductions, conducted on an equal footing between two nuclear weapons states at some point in the future.
On other issues the North will be similarly maximalist. Pyongyang will declare that its uranium enrichment program (whose discovery in 2002 triggered the ongoing nuclear drama) is a sort of atoms-for-peace project that is permissible under previous six-party agreements. Pyongyang may graciously indicate that it would consider a temporary halt to the processing of weapons-grade uranium — for the right price. For other “economic cooperation” North Korea is probably counting on a “signing bonus” of at least $10 billion (from Japan, as the price for normalizing relations).
And what is to become of South Korea? A recurring Pyongyang admonition is that Washington does not recognize the “territorial integrity” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — and according to North Korea’s constitution and its Worker’s Party charter, that territory is the entire Korean Peninsula.
Some will argue that Pyongyang does not really expect to obtain the “maximalist” objectives its pronunciations and diplomats have outlined. And perhaps it will, at the end of the day, settle for much less. But remember: North Korea is in the midst of a leadership transition to an as-yet-untested princeling. The process of consolidating power at home is unlikely to be aided by granting concessions or betraying any perceived weaknesses in the face of a great historical foe.
Moreover, the year 2012 holds an almost mystical importance in North Korea’s juche theology: It is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Kim Il Sung, and the annus mirabilis in which North Korea has been prophesied by Kim Jong Il to emerge as a “strong and prosperous state” (kangsong taeguk). As it happens, things are not going so well in the leadup to this celebration: Pyongyang appealed last month to the World Food Program for another emergency donation of food aid. North Korea needs big benefits from abroad and needs to lock them in now.
In six years of the intermittent six-party process, North Korea went from hinting it had a “war deterrent” to declaring itself a full-fledged nuclear power with repeated atomic blasts. Pyongyang is confident it can manipulate the process to generate further, perhaps unprecedented, benefits for its otherwise impoverished and discredited regime. For all its many weaknesses, North Korea has a coherent and consistent strategy for its negotiations with counterparts. Before they sit back down with the North Koreans, American officials might want to be sure they can say the same.
Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research.