War Stories

The Pyongyang Games

Oh, the joy of haggling with North Korea.

Finally, George W. Bush seems to be facing the reality he has tried to avoid for the past nine months—that the only practical way to stop North Korea from building atom bombs is through diplomacy. Negotiations begin this Wednesday in Beijing, with delegates from the six key powers—the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia—and time set aside for informal but crucial bilateral talks between the Americans and North Koreans, as well.

This is all to the good, if late in coming. But everyone should know—as the diplomats involved, no doubt, do—that these are likely to be the most drawn-out, wearying, even maddening negotiations that the United States, and certainly the Bush administration, has ever experienced.

As Scott Snyder, author of the most instructive book on North Korean negotiating behavior, has observed, Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader” of Pyongyang—like his father, Kim Il-Sung, the “Great Leader” before him—views his nation as a “guerrilla state” and his own position in the world as that of “a guerrilla fighter who has nothing to lose and yet faces the prospect of losing everything.”

His negotiating strategy, like his political rule in general, is built around generating an air of perpetual crisis and brinkmanship, constantly probing for divisions among the diplomats on the other side of the table, and ceaselessly demanding further concessions until he is convinced that there’s nothing more to be wrung.

There is a pattern to this set piece, as revealed in a series of negotiations in the mid-’90s—over North Korea’s first threat to go nuclear (a crisis very similar to the current one), the release of American POWs, the creation of an energy corporation for the Korean peninsula, and the attempt at drafting an armistice to formalize the end of the half-century-old Korean War. However, this pattern is often cryptic, laden with bluff and bluster, punctuated by threats of what Snyder calls “drama and catastrophe.” Getting to the end requires a mix of firmness and flexibility—and the patient clearheadedness to know which approach is appropriate at each step along the way.

The endgame is usually the forum for the most outrageous frustrations. For example, toward the end of the 1993-94 negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, the North Koreans suddenly and publicly announced a treaty-signing ceremony. They laid out the red carpet and notified the press. The American ambassador, Robert Gallucci, expressed puzzlement to North Korea’s foreign minister at the time, Kang Seok-ju, noting that there were a few issues yet to be resolved. Kang replied that the U.S. position on those issues was unacceptable, and the treaty to be signed would contain Pyongyang’s language. At the risk of killing the talks, Gallucci walked out—quite properly. After that incident, Kang and his superiors realized that they’d hit Washington’s bottom line. Soon after, the two sides resumed negotiating and reached a mutually acceptable accord.

That accord, known as the Agreed Framework and signed on Oct. 21, 1994, took 50 negotiating sessions to complete. A similar but tighter accord, which is needed now, may well take more.

Each step toward North Korea’s disarmament in ‘94 required a carefully choreographed—and simultaneous—sequence of agreements. At one point, the United States acceded to North Korea’s demand for a cancellation of upcoming military exercises; in exchange, North Korea let inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Administration back inside its nuclear reactors.

As much as Bush officials have rhetorically demanded that Pyongyang dismantle its weapons program before they take any steps toward a resumption of economic aid or a pledge of non-aggression, they are going to have to coordinate similar moves if the talks are to be a success.

Bush officials have harshly criticized the ‘94 accord, mainly because it was negotiated by the Clinton administration, which in their eyes means it must be bad, if not traitorous. It was a limited agreement, recognized as such at the time, but it did halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program for eight years. And it’s a debatable issue which side is responsible for the accord’s breakdown—Pyongyang, for resuming the weapons program, or Washington, for failing to provide the economic assistance that it pledged as its side of the bargain.

This kind of deal-making is precisely what Bush has rejected out of hand until now. The notion of trading anything for North Korea’s abandonment of nukes was dismissed as “appeasement” and “rewarding bad behavior.” In one sense, Bush was right. But in another sense, he was willfully naive. International relations almost always involve an element of bribery; the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (which pledges assistance with nuclear-energy technology in exchange for an abdication of nuclear weapons) is explicit on the point. The alternatives—a military strike on the reactors, an invasion of North Korea, and economic pressure—have apparently been sized up as, respectively, too risky, unfeasible, and ineffective. And so diplomacy, however unpleasant, is the only true alternative to the much grimmer fate of a nuclear North Korea.