United States Must Seize 'Opportunity' in North Korea

US special envoy on North Korea Glyn Davies (C) speaks to the media after the second day of bilateral talks with North Korea in Beijing on February 24, 2012. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea has often been called the “Land of Bad Options” for U.S. policy-makers. Since 2008, it has also been the land of bad news, as nuclear tests, the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island and faltering talks have pushed aside a brief period of hope around the September 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement.

Today, we have initial signs of renewed progress. Today’s announcement of a moratorium at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in return for U.S. food aid offers the possibility of progress toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and toward an eventual decrease of tensions.

If past practice holds, commentary on the agreement will focus on its deficiencies — it offers U.S. aid in return for a concession the North Koreans had already made; and it includes no indication that the North Koreans are any closer today to giving up their nuclear weapons than they were before. These things are true, but they miss a broader point.

The current period of both economic want and political transition in North Korea is an opportunity for the United States to achieve some long-held goals. In different circumstances, a North Korean sense of vulnerability led in 1994 to the Agreed Framework nuclear agreement, the most consequential agreement to date between North Korea and the United States. In 1994, after the July 9 death of Kim Il Sung, the North Koreans negotiated, perhaps as a strategy to build space to solve domestic problems. The Agreed Framework followed quickly, on October 21. This agreement did not end North Korea’s nuclear efforts, but it did set them back a decade and averted the real possibility of a disastrous war on the Korean peninsula.

As this blog offered in December, though the negotiations between the United States and North Korea were further along in advance of the 1994 transition than they are today, it was a North Korean negotiating strategy to seek agreement with both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations when it was most vulnerable. In the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death and a new North Korean transition, perhaps another opening is on offer.

The small opening made public today underscores the need to pursue both official dialogue and people-to-people exchanges. Only through these processes will we be able to fully understand the possibilities of agreement with the new North Korean leadership.

To be sure, any agreement over the coming months could advance some U.S. interests, but it will unfortunately not advance all of them. The North Korean government has likely not fundamentally changed its intent — it has not made a decision to abandon its nuclear program and it is not prepared to change its government. The North Korea regime is unlikely to improve on its abysmal human rights record, at great human cost to the North Korean people.

Today’s announcement, though, indicates that North Korea does consider itself vulnerable, both as a result of its political transition and economic difficulties. This vulnerability means that the United States and its allies and partners in Asia can use negotiations to advance some of their most important interests, even if it can’t achieve all of its hopes for a denuclearized, free and prosperous Korean peninsula in the short-term.

The only viable way to get there in the mid-term is to follow today’s thread of opportunity. 

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Stumpf
Matt Stumpf is Asia Society D.C. Office Director and former Special Asst to the USAID Administrator, State Dept nonproliferation expert and MacArthur Foundation Program Officer for Asian Security.