The ICAS Lectures

No. 2000-0211-ChD

North Korea-U. S. Relations:
Issues and Answers

  Chuck Downs

ICAS Winter Symposium
Asia's Challenges Ahead
University of Pennsylvania
February 11, 2000

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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North Korea - U. S. Relations: Issues and Answers

Chuck Downs
Senior Foreign and Defence Policy Advisor,
Republican Policy Committee,
U. S. House of Representatives

Thank you for inviting me to speak today before the ICAS platform. It is a great honor and a rare opportunity for me to be able to be discussing North Korea's negotiating strategy with such a fine group of people who take the North Korean issues very seriously.

I appear here today as the author of a book - Over the Line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy - and not as a Congressional aide. I realize that I am speaking between two members of the Clinton Administration's Korea team. Evans Revere naturally put the talks with North Korea in the best light possible. My remarks will instead sound an alarm, and may be depressing, but have no fear - Desaix Anderson will follow me and give you a more optimistic view in just a few minutes.

First let me say, however, that no one would be happier than I to say that you could negotiate with North Korea as you can with almost every other country. That is to say, that you could start out as equals at the negotiating table, address the issues between you with seriousness of purpose, work out compromises, enter into agreements that work, and implement the agreements in a way that promotes ever increasing, closer ties. Other Communist nations have at times negotiated in this manner, and I would be happy to have concluded from my research that North Korea might follow their pattern. Unfortunately that is not the case when negotiating with North Korea's regime.

I have been asked to discuss some of the most important points in my book, and I am glad to do that. But I have to admit at the outset that one of the most insightful comments in the book was not one of mine. In Ambassador Lilley's foreword, he observed, "to support policy objectives, American diplomats and analysts come up with explanations about North Korean behavior that support whatever arrangement they're trying to deliver. They persuade the American people to support policy outcomes that are little more than concoctions of how things ought to work out with North Korea." That very direct indictment gets at the heart of the problem of U.S. negotiating policy. North Korea is too important to America's national security and to our influence in Asia for American officials to construct a comfortable dream world of false, overly optimistic perceptions about dealing with Communist regime.

We have to get beyond how we think negotiations with North Korea ought to go to discover what has repeatedly happened in negotiations with North Korea, and understand why. First we have to dispose of common excuses: the excuse that no one knows what North Korea is up to and the excuse that North Korea's strategy is unfathomable. Despite the prevalent characterizations that North Korea's negotiating behavior is "crazy," "irrational," "bizarre" and "unpredictable," North Korea's negotiating strategy has actually been extraordinarily consistent over five decades. It has also been surprisingly successful.

Today, North Korea's people face famine and economic deprivation that have claimed at least 250,000 lives every year since 1995. Pending economic collapse is a consequence of the policies of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il. But North Korea has tried to reverse this outcome at the negotiating table, and allied generosity may actually have intervened to extend the regime's power and longevity. North Korea has survived similar difficulties at earlier points in its history. It has always used the negotiating process to obtain advantages that have repeatedly brought it back from the edge of apparent defeat. At the close of the Korean War, North Korea was devastated as a consequence of its own aggression, roundly condemned by the international community, and recognized as legitimate only by its ideological sponsors - the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union - neither of them thriving powers at the time. Yet North Korea survived to inflict unparalleled oppression on its people and defy internationally accepted norms of behavior for five decades. The internal impact of international negotiations matter very little to us, but a great deal to North Korea. Unfortunately, our dealings with the regime tend to have a debilitating impact on those in North Korea who look to us to support freedom.

Because the regime's policies have created abject poverty and famine, North Korea's people are more dependent than ever on the Communist party. Every benefit the regime obtains at the negotiating table becomes a favor it can dispense to loyalists and a punishment it can inflict on others. The regime itself is actually better off today than was at the end of the Korean war. It has obtained political recognition, security assurances, and significant economic assistance - even from its former enemies. The assistance it gets from nations it despises includes over $210 million annually from the Clinton administration. It is worthwhile to recall what North Korea has achieved through negotiation: North Korea seized territory during the armistice talks; Built up its military in defiance of the Armistice Agreement; Gained international influence and recognition through acts of terror; Manipulated South Korea's politics while espousing dialogue; Won concessions by denying inspections; And in the current four-party negotiations, Perfected long-range weaponry while pursuing peace talks.

Patterns emerge from this history, and North Korea's strategy is intriguingly consistent, well designed, and cleverly implemented. Some people dismiss North Korea's negotiating skill, pointing out it has concluded few treaties of any substance. It must be recognized, however, that North Korea often does not want to bring negotiations to closure. In How Nations Negotiate, Dr. Iklé observed negotiations are not merely a question of reaching an agreement or not reaching an agreement. There are always at least three options at play, and one of the most important is developing the prospects for future bargaining. This is where North Korea excels.

Two South Korean negotiators - Lee Dong Bok and Song Jong Hwan - experienced first hand the efforts North Korea makes to avoid agreements. They wrote the first scholarly articles that identified the phases of negotiating with North Korea. Simplifying their observations, in the first phase North Korea makes grand and encouraging initial gestures; In the second, it sets preconditions, reinterprets its position and hardens its posture; and in the third, it terminates talks, condemning its opponents for not accepting its demands. It is no mere coincidence that North Korea has repeatedly initiated negotiations by appearing to be open to fundamental changes in its policies. By merely pretending to pursue a new approach, it can implore its adversaries to show some consideration in exchange. At a minimum, it can expect the other side of the table to stop criticizing the regime during the talks, in hopes of improving the negotiating atmosphere. Often stopping criticism is exactly what the North Korean regime wanted in the first place. In order to jumpstart negotiations, North Korea has also, frequently, committed acts of violence. In addition to seizing the USS PUEBLO (with its 82-man crew) in international waters, North Korea tried to assassinate South Korea's presidents, bombed public gatherings to kill high-level South Korean officials, sent commandos over the line who killed South Korean citizens, planted bombs on commercial airliners, sunk ships, and shot down planes. These were not events that merely happened; they were actions undertaken by trained North Korean forces under orders, and they were done for a purpose: Bringing adversaries to the table for negotiations on North Korea's terms.

In practically every instance, talks with North Korea on every venue have ended when dictated by North Korea, in a stalemate or an unenforceable agreement. And in almost every standoff all the issues were brought to focus on only one: the North's demand that American troops be withdrawn and military assistance to South Korea be halted. The consistency with which U.S. troop withdrawal has been used by North Korea as a deal - stopper shows that the North wishes to make the South vulnerable more than it wishes to make Korea unified.

North Korea is under no illusion that it can persuade South Korea to call for a withdrawal of American troops but it has repeatedly chosen to terminate negotiations because the South would not agree to undermine its own security. There are at least three reasons for this. One is simply to preserve the means to walk away from any negotiation. Another is to undermine the resolve of South Korean and American officials. But the most important reason is right out of Orwell: to create war hysteria at home. Fanned by North Korea's own propaganda, war hysteria permits the regime to purge those presumed to be disloyal, and silence those who might counsel alternative policy courses. When the troop withdrawal issue emerges from the background to the foreground of negotiations with North Korea, heightened domestic repression, strident new demands, and threats to terminate the talks soon follow.

Understanding North Korea's negotiating strategy is especially important today. The Clinton administration has premised its policy on the belief that North Korean behavior will be moderated by the regime's fear of impending collapse and its eagerness to attain certain benefits - including the huge amounts of aid that the administration has extended to the regime. Contrary to the administration's hope, however, North Korea has used the years following its 1994 agreement to develop a more threatening military posture.

What does it mean when a nation that appears to be on the verge of collapse invests in threatening military capabilities rather than its own people's needs? It means that, contrary to the theory that collapse promotes cooperation, North Korea has a strategy of winning concessions by increasingly threatening behavior. The Clinton administration continues to hope that four-way talks between the People's Republic of China, the U.S. and the two Koreas will lead to a peace treaty. North Korea, however, has used the four-way talks as it has used every previous negotiation: to extract concessions that filled gaps in its economic performance, to provide a pretext for domestic political purges, and to build up its military capabilities. These objectives define North Korea's negotiating strategy. The regime pursues negotiation primarily to make up for the regime's systemic failures: its tenuous hold on its people's loyalty, its disastrous national economic policy, and its bellicose approach to other nations.

In the closing years of the twentieth century, allied policy has produced a curious spectacle: the world's strongest democracies are attempting to cajole an unwilling tyrant to negotiate an accommodation extending his regime's survival or at least cushioning its collapse. The United States seeks an accommodation in order to avoid the violence it fears might accompany North Korea's decline. North Korea, to the contrary, seeks to deny accommodation, and uses both collapse and the threat of war as leverage for its next negotiation.

Thank you.


This page last updated 2/27/2000 jdb


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