Jane VaynmanWhy has North Korea decided to negotiate?

North Korea has announced that it will return to negotiations. The six party talks could resume sometime in the next two months. Up to now, North Korea’s line has been that it will return to the talks if the US drops sanctions, particularly on financial institutions, and holds direct talks in Pyongyang. This announcement shows that they have had to back down from this position. The US response, that it would be willing to discuss the financial sanctions during negotiations, appears to be less of a compromise. (The issue of US financial sanctions is a complicated question which Jeffrey or I will try to tackle in the next few days.)

So why did North Korea have such a sudden change of heart?

One possibility is pressure from China, but it is not clear exactly what China threatened. Some news sources are saying it was oil supplies. (North Korea gets 90% of its oil from China.)

Korea Times suggests China threatened to cut of oil supplies:

What pushed Pyongyang back to dialogue table might be Beijing’s reported threat to cut oil supply and Seoul’s reconsideration of engagement policy.

Seattle Times cites a Reuters report that China already cut oil supplies in September in response to NK’s missile test, and may have threatened something even harsher:

Sleuthing by the Reuters news agency turned up the fact that China had pinched off the supply line in September after North Korea tested a missile in July. Chinese officials warned Kim Jong Il’s regime not to follow up with an announced test of a nuclear device, but North Korea did so on Oct. 9.


The biggest mistake of all was embarrassing China after it had counseled its economic ward to back away from a nuclear test.

If the oil spigot was turned off in September, one can only imagine what was done or coldly threatened after the October blast. Kim may only be scurrying back to the table to forestall tough international sanctions. Or, more likely, China quietly and clearly laid down the law to Pyongyang.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that trade with North Korea has been continuing normally, and pointed out that the oil supply data deals with September, not the period after the nuclear test.

Chinese oil trade data released on Monday indicated that in September China sent no crude to North Korea. The North relies on China for nearly all its oil, but has strained long-standing ties by test-firing missiles in July and then staging its first nuclear test on Oct. 9—both despite public pleas for restraint from China’s leaders.

But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao denied the September oil fall augured a squeeze on impoverished and energy-famished North Korea.

“China’s ordinary economic and trade dealings with North Korea have been continuing normally,” he told a regular news briefing, noting that the September trade numbers did not cover the period after Pyongyang’s nuclear test.

Or, is North Korea perhaps trying to avoid the recently passed UN sanctions? Japan immediately announced that it will continue its sanctions on North Korea. However, China South Korea previously hesitated on enforcement. Even after Secretary Rice’s visit to Moscow, Russia also appears to be moving slowly on implementing sanctions. It is possible that the enforcement of sanctions will wither with the delight that NK wants to talk again. Perhaps Kim Jong Il thinks that here is a good way to avoid punishment.


As a side note, I rather dislike headlines such as, Breakthrough: North Korea agrees to talks. Breakthrough? Maybe we should save that word for when something gets resolved, or even partially resolved? This really limits future word choice…”Success: North Korea still at the talks,” or “Quantum leap: North Korea may someday sign agreement.”


  1. mark gubrud (History)

    If we need a single-factor explanation for the “unexpected” decision, I would point out that North Korea makes it standard practice to behave in ways that are “unexpected”, to keep their opponents in the diplomatic game off balance.

    The test may not have been a big success, but they made their point, and by doing so increased the pressure on Bush, the Chinese, etc. to achieve something that can be called a success. I think this puts the North Koreans in a relatively stronger bargaining position than previously.

    I wouldn’t read too much into their “backing down” on the issues you cited. What matters is the terms of a major agreement, and getting one, rather than the order in which things are done.

  2. Sean

    Rather than this being the DPRK responding to outside pressures, I think it is more likely that North Korea is merely returning to the table after gaining a stronger bargaining position. In short, I agree with your distaste for the “breakthrough” headlines. This is merely another step in the ongoing dance.

  3. marley (History)

    off-topic: The new author icons are cute, but I feel John Steed and Emma Peel icons would be much more fitting!

  4. Andy (History)

    I don’t think one can definitively state that North Korea has “decided” to negotiate until we actually see them at the table. This could be nothing more than one of their stalling tactics to disrupt sanctions. If and when they do come back to the table I agree they will see their position as strengthened and may, therefore, be less compromising.

  5. Joe Cirincione (History)

    First, I like the icons and look forward to the day you animate them. Second, I also like the Avengers reference, but that blog title will have to await a different national political alignment. Third, I wrote today over at the CAP site, that is was a combination of direct talks with the US, the UN sancions and Chinese pressure. South Korean officials I spoke with believe that this may have been the DPRK plan all along: test, increase the size of their bargaining chip, then return to the table gaining concessions for the mere act of returning. Seems a bit too neat to me, but there may be something to that.

    Finally, I take Jane’s caution: I will reserve “breakthrough” for a true, durable achievement.

  6. abcd

    I find it interesting that the NYT reports today (11-01-06) that Christopher Hill, the U.S. pointman on North Korea, met “secretly in Beijing” with Kim Kye-gwan, “his North Korean counterpart” in order “to hash out terms of resuming negotiations.” For starters, I didn’t think it was the policy of this administration to negotiate with North Korea (meeting to “hash out terms” constitutes negotiating in most people’s minds.) Second, what is the point of negotiating about…negotiating?

    If Hill can take things this far with NK negotiators, why not go the whole mile and use the full weight of the U.S. to achieve – or at least attempt to achieve – our goals for the Korean peninsula?

  7. marko beljac (History)

    I think that what the Chinese have done here is quite clever. That is they have “delivered” the Norks to the table and now Beijing has, in a way, put the ball in Washington’s court. If the Bush administration doesn’t play ball Beijing would be well placed to put the blame for furture breakdowns on the White House. This would give China a stronger hand at the UN I think for the future, especially after the latest production from the China threat industry got its timing wrong and lambasted Beijing for its role on North Korea.

  8. Amit Joshi

    There is a Congressional report that states that China increased support to the North Korea program over the last year. http://www.washingtontimes.com/national/20061031-120304-2744r.htm

    If true, then this is just a Chinese attempt at wasting everybody’s time in an attempt to whitewash their activities.

  9. Jeffrey Lewis

    Jane is way more generous approving comments than I would be.

    The report is the 2006 annual report of the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission, which may have been empaneled by Congress but doesn’t, for example, have any Congressional members.

    Anyway, the draft appears to say that Chinese assistance to Pakistan in the 1980s indirectly helped North Korea (as well as Libya and Iran, one would presume).

    The reference to “increasing” assistance refers to economic assistance and trade, not the nuclear program.

    Please, read the article before posting.