Interim Steps with North Korea

Words Matter: “Interim steps,” U.S. Policy, and Nuclear North Korea

▶  ... proposing new dialogues with vaguely defined “interim” goals has engendered concern that Washington’s commitment to denuclearization is waning.

▶ ... if the U.S. is determined to pursue a threat-reduction, risk-reduction, or confidence-building dialogue with North Korea, Pyongyang will demand a high price in return for the insincere and duplicitous commitments and assurances it will surely offer.

[For North Korea] the central focus of bilateral negotiations would no longer be whether the DPRK should be a nuclear state, but how many weapons it will have.

The integrity of U.S. denuclearization policy and America’s credibility as an ally are at stake.

 

 

New Rhetoric

 

As a supporter of the Biden administration’s principled, alliance-centric approach to North Korea, I must confess it has been difficult to follow the thinking behind the administration’s recent rhetoric on negotiating with Pyongyang.  I am not alone. 

 

Numerous experts, longtime Korea hands, former U.S. officials, and representatives of America’s South Korean allies are puzzled by recent comments that the U.S. is prepared to meet with North Korea to discuss, depending on which official is speaking, “interim steps,” “confidence building,” “risk reduction,” “threat reduction,” or “conflict avoidance.”[1]  Consistency of priority, emphasis, and definition of these terms has not been a hallmark of the administration’s rhetoric.

 

Some critics worry that the Biden administration is promoting these dialogue possibilities to signal its readiness to pursue goals short of actual denuclearization, or even instead of denuclearization.  Administration officials have responded with assurances that U.S. policy is unchanged - the goal remains denuclearization.       

 

The administration’s dangling of possible dialogues is clearly aimed at enticing a reluctant North Korea back to the negotiating table.  Frustrated by Pyongyang’s unresponsiveness to calls for dialogue, the Biden administration is now doubling down on its message about a willingness to talk.

 

But another target of the proposals for new dialogues lies closer to home.  Critics on both the left and right in the U.S. are attacking the administration’s North Korea policy.  Some Republicans have accused the administration of not doing enough to counter Pyongyang’s development and deployment of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and the threat these pose to the United States. 

 

Some critics charge that the administration is not trying hard enough to talk with Pyongyang.  Others accuse the Biden administration, its hands full with China, Russia, Ukraine, and Gaza, of treating North Korea as a low priority. 

 

Still others assert that North Korea has made a strategic decision to go to war, necessitating (in their view) urgent action to reopen talks with Pyongyang and presumably make concessions to placate an allegedly war-hungry regime.[2]  Many experts have rejected this assertion.  A senior administration official recently declared there were “no signs or evidence” to support it - an artful dismissal of a groundless and dangerous claim.[3]

 

Most of the criticism aimed at the administration is unfair.  It ignores the fact that the rising threat posed by North Korea is not the result of U.S. inattentiveness.  Nor is it the lack of a muscular approach.  The U.S.-ROK alliance is stronger and closer than ever, and President Biden has declared that a North Korean attack on America or its allies would result in the end of the DPRK regime.  U.S. and ROK forces are conducting frequent, large-scale military exercises to make clear this is not an idle threat. 

 

The truth is that the root cause of the rising nuclear and missile threat is Pyongyang’s determination to be a nuclear-armed state.  Nonetheless, the voices of criticism have struck a nerve in Washington.  The Biden administration seems eager to demonstrate it is “doing something” about North Korea.

 

A Shift in Direction?

 

But proposing new dialogues with vaguely defined “interim” goals has engendered concern that Washington’s commitment to denuclearization is waning.  In fairness, those who worry that the U.S. administration is laying the groundwork for a move away from denuclearization as the policy goal have a point.  After all, the administration’s senior arms control official once said that the U.S. was prepared to do exactly this.

 

Speaking to a conference on October 27, 2022, U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control Bonnie Jenkins remarked, “If he (Kim Jong Un) picked up the phone and said, ‘I want to talk about arms control,’ we’re not going to say no.”  Jenkins declared that the U.S. and the DPRK could discuss “… not just arms control, but risk reduction – everything that leads up to a traditional arms-control treaty and all the different aspects of arms control that we can have with them.”[4]

 

Jenkins’s comments set off alarm bells.  It suggested U.S. willingness to shift the negotiating goal to seeking limits on Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, rather than eliminating it.  The criticism prompted by her remarks compelled the Biden administration to emphatically insist that U.S. policy and the centrality of denuclearization to that policy were unchanged.

 

But the damage had been done and the shadow of concern cast by Jenkins’s comments has remained.  Meanwhile, North Korea’s burgeoning arsenal and the growing realization that Pyongyang will almost certainly not give up its nuclear weapons have only exacerbated concerns that Washington may be eyeing an arms control negotiation aimed at limiting the threat.

 

For America’s Northeast Asia allies, especially front-line South Korea, the idea that the U.S. would discuss “…not just arms control, but risk reduction – everything that leads up to a traditional arms-control treaty…” represents a disturbing scenario, since it would imply acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

 

Pyongyang’s Goals

 

Meanwhile, absent from the current debate is any reference to what North Korea actually seeks.  If U.S. interest in “confidence building” and “threat” or “risk” reduction means willingness to engage in arms control talks, that would be music to Pyongyang’s ears. 

 

But the only arms that North Korea seeks to “control” are those the United States uses to defend its allies.  The only “threat” Pyongyang wants to “reduce” is the one it feels from the U.S.-ROK alliance and the U.S. regional military presence.  How do we know this?  The North Koreans told us.

 

In the spring of 2012, North Korea’s then-foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, speaking to a gathering of U.S. experts and former senior officials, made the case for the United States and North Korea to engage in arms control talks “as one nuclear power with another.”  He said such talks would have to suffice until the U.S. and the DPRK could build enough “confidence” to allow Pyongyang to “consider” denuclearization “in 10 or 20 years.”  Implicit in his remarks was that the United States would effectively be accepting the legitimacy of the North’s nuclear arsenal in such talks.  More explicit in his comments was the idea that the U.S. needed to remove the “threat.”[5] 

 

Ri defined the “threat” as the existence of the U.S.-ROK alliance, deployment of U.S. forces in and near South Korea, and the existence of tactical and strategic assets aimed at the DPRK.  “Eliminate the threat,” he said, and the DPRK could “consider” denuclearization.

 

For North Korea, arms control is not about limiting its arsenal, but rather reducing the ability of the United States to defend its allies. Towards that end, Pyongyang would probably jump at the prospect of a negotiation in which U.S. forces and the U.S. -ROK alliance were on the table.

 

Meanwhile, we should remember the bitter lessons from past negotiations with North Korea.  Every previous U.S.-DPRK denuclearization negotiation was based on “building confidence” and “threat reduction.”  All the agreements reached in those negotiations ultimately failed due to North Korean deceit, misrepresentation, and determination to be a nuclear weapons power at all costs.

 

And if the United States were to pursue goals other than full denuclearization, U.S. negotiators would necessarily have to offer significant inducements and incentives, to include concessions that Washington once reserved only for actual denuclearization.  The inducements required to achieve Pyongyang’s denuclearization would quickly disappear.

 

Fool Me Once…Fool Me Twice…

 

With new efforts being made to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, we must ask whether anything has changed regarding Pyongyang’s determination to be a nuclear weapons state.  It is also fair to ask why, after decades of deception regarding its nuclear program, Pyongyang would now suddenly be willing to act in good faith.

 

A U.S. negotiating approach that focuses on goals other than denuclearization would raise deep concerns in Seoul and Tokyo.  An arms-control or "risk-reduction" approach would be widely perceived as accepting a nuclear-armed DPRK.  And for Pyongyang, such talks would mean that the central focus of bilateral negotiations would no longer be whether the DPRK should be a nuclear state, but how many weapons it will have. 

 

Such an approach would be unacceptable to Washington’s Northeast Asian allies, who would see themselves as being relegated to live under a permanent North Korean nuclear threat.  It is also inconceivable that Seoul and Tokyo would agree that their respective alliances with the United States, and the presence of the U.S. forces that guarantee their security, would be on the table in talks with Pyongyang. 

 

Finally, if the U.S. is determined to pursue a threat-reduction, risk-reduction, or confidence-building dialogue with North Korea, Pyongyang will demand a high price in return for the insincere and duplicitous commitments and assurances it will surely offer.  We have been down this road before.  We know how this movie ends.  Experience tells us such a dialogue should be avoided.  The integrity of U.S. denuclearization policy and America’s credibility as an ally are at stake.

 

[1] Song Sang-ho, “U.S. focus on ‘interim’ steps with N. Korea raises questions about policy direction,” Yonhap, March 7, 2024, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20240307000351315; See also Lee Hyo-jin, “US hinting at ‘interim steps’ with NK doesn’t indicate policy shift: experts,”  Korea Times, March 20, 2024, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2024/05/113_371038.html.

[2] Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker, “Is Kim Jong Un Preparing for War?”, PACNET/Pacific Forum, January 23, 2024, https://pacforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/PacNet-4-Is-Kim-Jong-Un-preparing-for-war.pdf.

[3] “The Impossible State Live Podcast: Diplomacy or Crisis with DPRK in 2024?”, CSIS, March 18, 2024,  https://www.csis.org/events/impossible-state-live-podcast-diplomacy-or-crisis-dprk-2024.

[4] David Brunnstrom and Simon Lewis, “U.S. says North Korea policy unchanged after nuclear remark raises eyebrows,” Reuters, October 29, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/us-says-north-korea-policy-unchanged-after-nuclear-remark-raises-eyebrows-2022-10-29/.

[5] Evans J.R. Revere, “North Korea’s new nuclear gambit and the fate of denuclearisation,” East Asia Forum, March 22, 2021, https://eastasiaforum.org/2021/03/22/north-koreas-new-nuclear-gambit-and-the-fate-of-denuclearisation/; Author’s personal notes

Author(s)

A retired senior U.S. diplomat, Evans Revere served with distinction as one of the U.S. State Department’s leading Asia experts. During his career, he served as the Acting Assistant Secretary and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Currently, he is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings’ Center for Asia Policy Studies. He is also senior advisor with the Albright Stonebridge Group and a member of the Board of Advisers of the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR).
He has extensive experience negotiating with North Korea and served as the U.S. government’s primary day-to-day liaison with North Korea.
He is fluent in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish, and is a graduate of Princeton University, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.