U.S. negotiations with North Korea

U.S. president Jimmy Carter with Kim Jong-Il.

EARLY IN his first term, President Clinton discovered North Korea as a diplomatic opportunity with almost the prestige and magnitude of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Successful negotiations with the decaying Cold War relic would benefit the United States' global humanitarian image, expand U.S. security in the region, and embarrass the regional rivals for influence, Russia and China. A young State Department set off in pursuit of the prize, breaking the stony silence that had dominated U.S.-North Korean relations since 1986.

By 1994, they had an agreement: North Korea would abandon its nuclear ambitions, abiding by the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; the U.S. would provide humanitarian aid and build two nuclear power plants. The food shipments launched as the negotiations were wrapping up.

Every American president since Eisenhower has started negotiations with North Korea the same way: soft power, generous promises, good cheer.

In late 1994, trouble brewed. Kim Jong-Il, Dear Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), insisted that the new power plants be constructed before he would submit to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. President Clinton insisted on the reverse. Chicken-and-egg arguments prevailed, and stagnation set in.

In the spring of 1995, the U.S. resumed its FOAL Eagle exercises—cooperative war games involving the South Korean military, the U.S. Army 2nd Division, and several Air Force squadrons stationed along the Korean border.  On paper, the exercises are intended to encourage cooperation between Korean and U.S. forces.  In practice, they are an annual irritant to North Korea, inciting frantic condemnations, saber-rattling, and desperate defensive preparations. Before pooh-poohing, imagine 30,000 American soldiers practicing for invasion in your own back yard.

Every American president since Eisenhower has started negotiations with North Korea the same way: soft power, generous promises, good cheer. And they've all ended them with hard power, stringent demands, cold negotiations.

Ultimately, neither side fully honored the 1994 deal. The official State Department report only noted that the power plants were never completed. Clinton accused Kim Jong-Il of breaking the Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and levied economic sanctions against North Korea, only relenting as his own term in power came to a close.

Every American president since Eisenhower has ended negotiations with North Korea the same way: hard power, stringent demands, cold negotiations. And, after finding the nation an unusually difficult customer, U.S. administrations tire of the chase and eventually cycle back to a more pleading approach as the President's tenure wraps up. It's been happening for 56 years.

President Bush picked up the trail, discovering for himself the exciting and promising diplomatic opportunity presented in North Korea. His campaign promises implied that he intended to recall many of the U.S. forces flung too far—including, perhaps, those stationed in Korea. 

The appeal to Kim Jong-Il ran deeper than the irritation of the FOAL exercises: Kim’s father Kim Il-Sung infamously stated that unity on the Korean Peninsula was impossible while foreign powers remained present in their land. Removing the last foreign power on the peninsula would open up channels for reunification, after nearly seventy years of occupation and division.

Reunification has been the goal of both North and South since the Korean War.  The peninsula has accumulated 3,000 years of unified history, much of it as a sovereign subservient nation to the Chinese Empire. When Korea was occupied and subsequently liberated in World War II, the division began. Russia, liberating the northern portion of the peninsula, appointed Kim Il-Sung—a legendary Korean guerilla leader—to head the government.  America, liberating the southern portion, reinstalled the exiled government.

For several years, North and South attempted reunification peacefully, but Kim Il-Sung crippled the talks by accusing the reinstated southern government of capitulating to Western culture at the expense of Korea’s sovereign history. Eventually, the talks broke down completely into the Korean War.

Reunification today carries the estimated cost of $10,000,000,000,000 and a refugee disaster.

President Bush never had the opportunity to test the impact of withdrawing the U.S. Army 2nd Division.  In 2001, he accused North Korea of being part of an Axis of Evil responsible for supporting terrorism. Negotiations were immediately silenced, and Bush began his obligatory attempt at using hard power in North Korea.

By 2003, the Bush administration had learned the lesson eight other presidents had learned before, and returned to the diplomacy table with hat in hand. The Six Party Talks—involving Russia, Japan, South Korea, and China—were intended to achieve diplomatic success through peer pressure. They enjoyed some limited success, largely thanks to China.

Again, negotiations were curtailed by the trouble of who would fulfill their promises first. The U.S. continued to request adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and North Korea continued to insist on the U.S. acting first. The American made a splash every time Korea tested a missile; in Korea, the FOAL exercises went on. Progress was reported, but not really made: too much was lost, as with Clinton, in the early bait-and-switch of U.S. negotiations.

As Obama enters his hard-power stage of negotiating with North Korea, he would do well to watch carefully what nine other US Presidents have done before. He would do better to stop his current approach—stop repeating, for the tenth time, a cycle of powerless negotiation. And he would do best to leave it up to China.

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