Joshua PollackNorth Korea and the United States: Diplomacy at an Impasse

What this week’s Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community said about North Korea was stark but hopefully not too surprising: its nuclear and missile programs “pose a serious threat to the United States and to the security environment in East Asia.” The North Koreans are forging ahead, restarting the graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon, expanding the enrichment facility there, and taking steps toward fielding the KN-08 road-mobile ICBM.

(See p. 6 of the prepared text.)

No limitations on North Korea’s nuclear program are currently in place and no negotiations are underway toward this end — in noticeable contrast to the situation in Iran. Earlier this month, I took a stab at explaining why there has been no movement in this direction in over a year’s time, since before Pyongyang’s February 2013 nuclear test.

The following article was originally published in RUSI Newsbrief (Vol. 34, No. 1, January 2014), at It appears here with the gracious permission of the editors at RUSI Newsbrief.

Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea: Over Before it Began?

Joshua Pollack

Commercial space images published over the course of 2013 have revealed considerable activity at North Korea’s nuclear complex at Yongbyon. A new, ‘experimental’ light-water reactor project appears to be complete externally, and the previously disabled gas-cooled, graphite moderated reactor – the source of North Korea’s plutonium – appears to have recommenced operations in late August or early September. The roof of the new gas-centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility shown to researchers from Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation in November 2010 has doubled in area.

These changes suggest a growing distance between North Korea’s formal commitment to denuclearisation under the discontinued Six-Party Talks (with South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the US) and the entrenched reality of its nuclear programmes. They correspond to Pyongyang’s declaration in April 2013 that it would ‘adjust’, ‘alter the uses’ of, and ‘restart’ the facilities at Yongbyon. According to the North Korean authorities, these moves support a ‘new strategic line’ of simultaneously developing both nuclear weapons and the North Korean economy.

After decades of stagnation, North Korea’s ability to advance its economy significantly seems doubtful, regardless of whether this occurs in conjunction with nuclear-weapons development. But a different sort of parallel process – simultaneously technical and diplomatic – is at work in North Korea’s nuclear policy. Both aspects respond to the Obama administration’s policy of ‘strategic patience’, which relies on enforcing and strengthening sanctions in response to successive tests of long-range rockets and nuclear devices.

On two tracks to nowhere fast

On the technical track, the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear military potential at Yongbyon seems calculated to demonstrate the impotence of sanctions, while signalling heightened dangers in the form of a growing supply of fissile material. If the restoration of the small gas-graphite reactor symbolises the persistent diplomatic stalemate, the enlargement of the enrichment facility indicates a deeper problem. North Korea’s efforts to place its gas-centrifuge programme on an indigenous footing gravely complicate any strategy for rolling back its nuclear capabilities (key components are previously believed to have been imported). Unlike reactors, the operation of gas centrifuges produces little, if any, technical ‘signature’ that makes such activity readily identifiable. If the key components and materials for the centrifuge programme are produced domestically, sanctions will lack bite, and the international community cannot be certain of the number, size or whereabouts of enrichment facilities in the country beyond Yongbyon.

Verifying the full extent of the enrichment programme was the same iceberg upon which the Six-Party Talks foundered in 2008. The visible expansion of the programme now hints at what might lie below the waterline. In the months to come, further glimpses might be afforded, perhaps through the type of unofficial visit to Yongbyon previously used by North Korea to advertise its capabilities.

On the diplomatic track, North Korea strives to keep China – its main trading partner and sometime protector – from aligning its policies too closely with those of the US. Over the longer term, Pyongyang seeks to turn the agenda toward the removal of economic sanctions and the conclusion of a Korean War peace treaty, presumably one that ends the US military presence in South Korea.

Bottoming out

Tactical manoeuvres dominate for now, with the US in particular seeking to minimise the risks inherent to any further engagement following the abrupt collapse of a limited understanding between the US and North Korea announced on 29 February 2012. This abortive ‘Leap Day Deal’ was to have halted activity at the enrichment facility at Yongbyon, with measures in place for the verification of both the enrichment freeze and the continued disablement of the gas-graphite reactor and the associated reprocessing facility. It was also to have imposed moratoria on nuclear tests and long-range missile tests. In return, the US was to have provided food aid as a humanitarian gesture, and – at least in the view of the North Koreans – the arrangement was to have led to a resumption of the Six-Party Talks, with priority given to its own preferred issues, including the removal of sanctions.

The sticking point in this deal proved to be rocketry. The US government insisted that the missile moratorium encompass the activities of North Korea’s space programme, seeing it as a cover for the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The North Koreans differed, and quickly announced an upcoming satellite launch. The unravelling of the progress made prior to this disagreement left Washington dissatisfied and apparently determined not to repeat the experience, while Pyongyang, for its part, has expressed openness to another attempt at talks, either for its own reasons or to satisfy demands from Beijing.

The low tide of diplomatic engagement between the two sides came at the end of August 2012, when the North Korean foreign ministry announced a new policy on nuclear development. A lengthy memorandum declared that unless the US chose to make a ‘bold and fundamental change in its cold war mindset’ and to abandon its ‘hostile policy’, North Korea would expand its nuclear arsenal ‘beyond the U.S. imagination’. After another satellite launch in December 2012, prompting condemnation by the UN Security Council in January 2013, North Korea went further, explicitly disavowing the September 2005 Joint Statement, in which it had unequivocally agreed to ‘abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs’ – the core achievement of the Six-Party Talks. North Korea’s third nuclear test followed in February.

After the usual condemnations by the international community, Beijing pressed Pyongyang to withdraw from its maximalist stance. According to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, North Korean envoy Choe Ryong-hae told Chinese Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan in May 2013 that the North Koreans were ‘willing to accept advice from the Chinese side and carry out dialogue with relevant parties’. The following month, the North Koreans issued a statement renewing their public commitment to denuclearisation and stating their willingness to discuss the idea of ‘a world without nuclear weapons’ with the US, as well as their own issues of concern. During meetings in Beijing to mark the eighth anniversary of the signing of the September 2005 Joint Statement, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan reportedly expressed support for resuming the Six-Party Talks.

Meanwhile, the position of US officials has stiffened, especially concerning the production of fissile material. The US continues to insist on a package of nuclear freezes and test moratoria before returning to negotiations. Significantly, however, Washington is no longer willing to entertain a verified freeze on nuclear activities at Yongbyon alone. Now, if the freeze does not cover all such facilities, anywhere in North Korea, no proposal for renewed denuclearisation talks will be judged ‘credible and authentic’. The Obama administration does not wish to be drawn into high-profile talks that simply fill time before the next round of North Korean rocket and nuclear tests. Should Pyongyang voluntarily freeze uranium enrichment beyond Yongbyon, this gesture would be understood as a signal of seriousness.

In the deep freeze

Now, however, it is substantive diplomacy – and not enrichment – that is frozen. Shuttle diplomacy conducted in the autumn of 2013 by Wu Dawei, a Chinese foreign ministry official, brought the sides no closer. Instead, Wu’s visits to Pyongyang and Washington mainly yielded barbs in the official North Korean media, including the official, outward-facing news agency, KCNA, about President Obama’s vision of ‘a world without nuclear weapons’. In June, Pyongyang had identified this ‘proposal’ as a valid basis for negotiations, but soon began to dismiss it as hypocritical rhetoric.

Following the Beijing gathering in September 2013, where no official American or South Korean participants were present, the North Korean foreign ministry arranged meetings with former US officials responsible for policy on North Korea during the Clinton and Obama administrations, Stephen Bosworth and Robert Gallucci, to convey their desire to enter talks without preconditions. As if in reply, current senior US officials, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, have expressed the administration’s position with greater bluntness. In remarks made at Georgetown University in November, Rice declared that, ‘Pyongyang’s attempts to engage in dialogue while keeping critical elements of its weapons programs running are unacceptable’. Speaking to the press in Beijing the following day, the State Department’s point man on the North Korean nuclear issue, Glyn Davies, underscored Rice’s point: ‘if we are to get back to talks, North Korea is going to have to cease its nuclear activities’. North Korea responded predictably, insisting that Washington’s ‘unreasonable’ and ‘absurd’ preconditions prevented a resurrection of the Six-Party Talks. It added that North Korea ‘will be compelled to steadily bolster deterrence’ in the face of continuing US hostility.

The Obama administration’s stance reflects a belief that activity at the Yongbyon complex primarily provides North Korea with something valuable to trade away for sanctions relief, a peace treaty, and other desiderata. It is no longer the beating heart of the nuclear-weapons programme. Thus Washington’s insistence that North Korea foreclose the option of covert uranium enrichment for the duration of negotiations is entirely understandable. It could be compared, in spirit, to the Joint Plan of Action agreed by the EU/E3+3 and Iran in November: a confidence-building measure that creates space for in-depth negotiations by removing the implicit threat to produce weapons-grade fissile material.

Measured by results, Washington’s principled stand looks less rewarding, however. North Korea, unlike Iran, already considers itself a nuclear-armed state, and is very unlikely to comply with demands for a blanket freeze. Instead, North Korea’s fissile-material stockpile appears set to expand, allowing the production of more nuclear devices if desired. Qualitative improvements to weapons-related technology can also be expected; commercial satellite images published online show continuing work at North Korea’s launch sites and its nuclear test facility. In October, a North Korean diplomat at the UN reiterated plans for additional satellite launches. In late December, a high-ranking Korean Workers’ Party official, Kim Yong-nam, remarked that Kim Jong-un, the country’s third-generation leader, would ‘display the dignity’ of the country in space – an act North Korea typically follows, a few months later, with a nuclear test. The ultimate goal of denuclearisation therefore appears to be growing more distant.

New North Korean nuclear exports also cannot be ruled out. In the past, North Korea has exported nuclear technology to Syria and Libya and exchanged know-how with Pakistan. Assuming customers can be found, future export activity might involve enrichment technology or even excess fissile material. While the North Korean nuclear programme continues unchecked by diplomacy, the pursuit of non-proliferation faces mounting risks.

 * * *


Earlier this week, State Department Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies visited the region again. The bottom line, as he explained to the press in Beijing, remains the same, with a hint at “further pressure” on North Korea to bring them around:

[The United States and China] share an interest in getting back to Six-Party Talks as soon as possible. Here, the principal obstacle, and you all know this, has been the lack of not just interest, but meaningful steps on the part of North Korea to demonstrate that it understands that it has to live up to its obligations and its commitments, principally those it made back in September 2005, that’s encapsulated in the joint statement. And it’s, I mean, I’ve been at this job now over two years, and I’ve been struck with the…the lack of interest on the part of North Korea in meaningfully addressing this denuclearization issue, which is the principal issue that underpins the Six Party talks process. We haven’t seen any signs that they are willing to move on that, willing to take steps to address the concerns that we’ve had. What they’ve said are things like that they have…that they’re interested in coming back to talk without preconditions, which means that they’d like to talk about everything except their obligations to denuclearize. So this is of great concern to us. So of course, here in Beijing, the bulk of the time I spent in meetings with Chinese officials was about how best to move the process forward, get back to Six Party, convince North Korea, if necessary, through further pressure, that it needs to begin taking steps now and get back on to that, into that process of denuclearization.

The President’s 2014 State of the Union address, delivered the same day, made no mention of any prospects for nuclear diplomacy with North Korea.


  1. Cthippo (History)

    I hate to say “I told you so”, but yeah…

    Back when the North Koreans were getting ready for the Uhna launch and had their nuclear program on hiatus the US had a choice. Either we could keep getting what we said we wanted, or else we could throw a fit over a launch that probably Kim Jong Un himself couldn’t stop without massive repercussions. We chose to throw a fit.

    How has that worked out for the US and it’s national security?

  2. SQ (History)

    Fair question. What now?

  3. Cthippo (History)

    You remember the alcoholics prayer?

    “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the strength to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    That’s a good place to start. We need to set realistic negotiating goals in respect to North Korea and figure out what we can offer them in return. Voluntary regime change is not happening. De-nuclearization is not happening. An end to North Korean ballistic missile programs is not happening. Even asking for those things, much less demanding them, is just insulting to a nation that has spent so much of their national treasure to get where they are now.

    Taking the above as reality, what is achievable? What do we want North Korea, as a sovereign nation, to do? Non-proliferation of WMDs and technology is probably a reasonable goal. A reduction of hostile acts towards South Korea and Japan is probably also reasonable. Improved human rights policies might be achievable, but this is touchy since it is an internal issue.

    The biggest thing the US needs to do is to re-set it’s negotiating position in a way that recognizes the situation as it is, not as we may want it to be. North Korea is a sovereign, independent nation over whom we have no control and very little influence. We can’t make them do anything. If we want a change in their behavior we need to be prepared to offer something in return, including changing our behavior. It would also help if we had a better track record of following through with our commitments, but this is where confidence building measures come into play.

    An attitude of “we’ll talk to anyone, any time, on any issue, without preconditions” would be a good start”. Demanding concessions for the mere privilege of talking to the US is counter-productive and will tend to poison the negotiations before they ever start.

    • SQ (History)

      I can’t speak for the US, but will try to do some mind-reading. The problem with resetting negotiating positions is that it allows the North Koreans to renege on past agreements without penalty. Probably someone in office has made this point along the way, using other words.

      The problem with not resetting, of course, is that the North Koreans have cheated, reneged, or walked away before precisely because they can. Do we have a better option? Do we have a way of penalizing them that will actually lead them back to their previous commitments?

      Is there a carefully structured agreement out there that the North Koreans will have an incentive to honor? If not, is there an alternative to diplomacy? Besides sitting around, waiting for the situation to get worse, that is? I haven’t seen it expressed anywhere, but by default, it’s containment. What would a serious effort at containment look like? Are we seeing it now?

      Or maybe this is the wrong way of looking at it, and diplomacy can be seen as part of containment, not an alternative to it. Either way, are our interests truly so divergent that there cannot be any sustainable agreement at all?

    • Cthippo (History)

      The North Koreans aren’t the only ones with a history of reneging on agreements. When Bush 2 came into office he walked away from the agreements that had been signed between the Clinton administration and the NKs. The NKs thought they had a solid agreement on the leap day deal, but then we walked away from it on what they perceived ( and I would say rightly so, but that’s up for argument) on a technicality. They have shown that they are generally willing to uphold their end of the bargain so long as we continue to uphold ours, and if the situation changes then they have given notice in the past when the agreement is no longer operative. Nations walk away from treaties all the time, and in most cases there is language in the treaty that lays out the process for a nation to declare it inoperative if they feel the need to do so. We walked away from the ABM treaty when we felt it was in our best interests, and the Russians are making noise about walking away from START because of it. An agreement is only binding so long as the parties agree to continue to be bound by it.

      As for containment, what is there to contain? North Korea is not an expansive empire seeking to add to their land holdings. They’re not trying to subvert other governments the way the US and USSR did during the cold war. They’re not even China, a growing economic and military power seeking to increase their role in the world.

      All indications are that North Korea wants to be left alone to do their own thing, be secure in their borders, and grow their economy. Regime preservation is a much higher priority than it would be in a democratic state where power changes happen regularly, but it’s not much different from many other states. They are developing a limited strategic deterrence capability, which is again aimed at their national security and regime preservation.

      I see lots of room for diplomacy, but I agree it’s going to be difficult and probably unlike any negotiation we’ve entered into before. I think the best strategy is to start small, with limited term agreements for concrete ends and go from there.

    • Rene (History)

      “Voluntary regime change is not happening. De-nuclearization is not happening. An end to North Korean ballistic missile programs is not happening. Even asking for those things, much less demanding them, is just insulting to a nation that has spent so much of their national treasure to get where they are now.”

      I think someone should write the above lines in stone and put it on Obama’s desk. No, wait! I meant the Senate FRC’s chamber. Or maybe both.

      I think it is in fact possible to convince North Korea to halt their nuclear weapons program (no more tests), though they may insist on having domestic enrichment or reprocessing for energy purposes. I also doubt that they would stop testing ballistic missiles or that they would stop building larger SLVs, but I think they may agree not to test/build actual ICBMs. In other words, I think North Korea may be happy with having the “potential” to build ICBMs and better nukes rather than having the actual operational capability. Given the current state of affairs, I’d much rather the US accept their having the “potential” than watch them realize it.

      My only hope is that perhaps Obama is pursuing secret talks with North Koreans as he did with Iran. It’s crazy to think that he would just stand by and see their nuclear weapons program advance.

  4. j_kies (History)

    Wisdom is the expression we apply when we learn lessons from painful (and less painful) experience. I suggest the situation mirrors the 1946 ‘Long Telegram’ of George Kennan. Clearly we can state that North Korea’s decision level appears “impervious to the logic of reason”, it may follow it is “highly sensitive to the logic of force”.

    My read of the situation looks like direct substitution of “North Korea” can occur for “USSR” for three of the five tenets. Containment appears to be the name of the game until the internal problems of North Korea result in the regime collapse. Certain technical measures such as Missile Defenses seem appropriate to reduce dangers in the event of loss of command/control of the NK weapons complex during regime collapse.

    • SQ (History)

      j_kies, as I read it, Kennan was saying in the passage you quote about sensitivity to “the logic of force” that the Soviet leadership was risk-averse and would not pursue dangerous adventures:

      I’m not sure if you mean to apply that view to North Korea. Does seem pretty clear that Kennan was arguing for what we would now call a “soft power” strategy against the USSR.

  5. justman (History)

    The impasse in diplomacy is mainly due to the hardline policy of the Obama administration, which is only focused on containment,regime collapse, and “further pressure”.

    One wonders what happened to the campaign promise of Obama to talk with leaders of US adversaries without any preconditions?

    Who is really reneging and cheating us?