Trying to talk to North Korea.

Trying to talk to North Korea.

Trying to talk to North Korea.

Military analysis.
Sept. 16 2005 4:36 PM

Guerrilla Negotiating

The North Korea talks are in trouble—and this time we can't blame George Bush.

The North Korean nuclear talks may be headed toward a collapse, and this time anyway, it isn't George W. Bush's fault.

What's the problem? And can anything be done to solve it?

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After a promising resumption two months ago (which followed a yearlong hiatus), the "six-party talks" seem to be breaking down over the North Koreans' sudden declaration that they won't give up their nuclear-weapons program unless the other five powers—the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea—give Pyongyang the money to build a light-water nuclear reactor.

The issue stems from the disarmament accord between Kim Jong-il and the Clinton administration in 1994. The Agreed Framework, as it was called, placed North Korea's nuclear fuel rods under lock and constant inspection in exchange for two light-water reactors to fill the impoverished country's energy needs.

The Agreed Framework fell apart in 2002, after evidence emerged that North Korea was secretly enriching uranium. But even before then, it was clear that funding for the reactors—which was to be supplied by a U.S.-led consortium—would not be forthcoming.

Just before the talks got under way again this past July, South Korea held out the promise of massive energy assistance in the form of power lines carrying conventional electricity, if North Korea gave up its ambitions to build A-bombs. Pyongyang came back to the table, saying all the right things (we want to give up our nuclear-weapons program, we'll welcome back international inspectors, we'll rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty)—then they demanded a reactor.

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The demand is a nonstarter for two reasons: one political, one practical. First, the North Koreans have manufactured bomb-grade material at one reactor that wasn't designed for military purposes. * Who's to say they won't do the same again? Second, nobody is going to buy them a reactor anyway. Russia, China, and South Korea agree with North Korea's claim that, as a sovereign nation, it has a right to nuclear energy. But that doesn't mean that they or any other countries have an obligation to supply it. They couldn't raise the money for reactors in '94, when an international agreement did obligate them to do so; they're not likely to raise it now.

The big question is whether the North Koreans really mean it when they say they won't budge on their nuclear materials unless they get a free nuclear reactor—or whether this is just a negotiating position. And if it's a negotiating position, do they intend at some point to cave in—or are they just stringing us all along while covertly proceeding with their plan to build bombs?

Jack Pritchard thinks it's a negotiating position. Pritchard was the chief U.S. negotiator on North Korean affairs until he resigned two years ago (in protest of Bush's refusal at the time to negotiate). As such, he's one of the few Americans to have seen Pyongyang's bargaining style up close, and he says this is, alas, par for the course. "They've got nothing else to bargain with," Pritchard said in a phone conversation Friday. "So, unfortunately, they're going to hold on to this position for as long as they can."

Scott Snyder, author of Negotiating on the Edge (the best book on Pyongyang's bargaining style), writes that Kim Jong-il—like his father, Kim Il Sung, before him—regards his country as a "guerrilla state" and his position in the world as that of "a guerrilla fighter who has nothing to lose and yet faces the prospect of losing everything." In diplomacy, therefore, his strategy is to generate an air of perpetual crisis and brinkmanship, constantly probing for divisions among the diplomats on the other side of the table, ceaselessly demanding further concessions until he's convinced there's nothing more to be wrung.

Clinton's emissaries had to sit through 50 negotiating sessions to hammer out the Agreed Framework. Bush's will have to endure the same, if not more. As the North Koreans realize, Bush has no good alternatives to talking. His advisers have long deemed a military attack as too risky. The U.N. Security Council is unlikely to approve sanctions, as certainly China and probably Russia would veto such a move.

The danger—not just for us but for the North Koreans as well—is that Kim and his emissaries will hold out for too long. "They're terrible judges of timing," Pritchard said. The Bush administration went into this latest round of talks divided over whether they even should. In Bush's first term, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who favored talks, was outmaneuvered at every turn by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and even his own undersecretary of state, John Bolton. Talks are happening at all only because, in the second term, Condoleezza Rice has enough leverage with President Bush to insist on them. But if the North Koreans keep diddling for too long, Bush—or even Rice—will lose patience. And then we'll all be back to square one.

Correction, Sept. 19, 2005: The original story stated that the North Koreans enriched uranium at a reactor. In fact, they breeded plutonium at the reactor; they enriched uranium at another, still-unknown facility. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.