US experts debate Obama’s DPRK policy options

[Now that the volume of international outrage following the 12 February detonation of the DPRK’s third nuclear test has faded, the international community is waiting to see whether the Obama administration has any new ideas on how to meet this challenge. As always, Washington-based Chris Nelson takes the pulse of the American policy community, challenging his “Loyal Readers”, i.e. North Korea experts, to comment. The following is taken from the 19 February 2013 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by the author. –CanKor.]


White_HouseRepeated here is the message from a senior informed source we ran in Friday’s Nelson Report (2/15), so you can make sense of the consequent Loyal Reader comments which follow:

The Obama Administration has never had an ideological problem with talking to the North Koreans – directly or multilaterally — and has been pushing without success since early 2009 for authentic and credible negotiations. The problem has been North Korea’s unwillingness to negotiate over its nuclear program, let alone to provide anyone with reason to believe that it will abide by any commitment it makes.

The purpose of the Feb 29 understanding last year was to put in place a moratorium that would open the door to negotiations — but the North immediately blew that up. So:

  • The North refuses to press the pause button on its nuclear and missile development during talks;
  • The North refuses to discuss its nuclear or missile programs, let alone negotiate steps to roll back and eliminate them;
  • The North sets as its predicate that denuclearization and its prior commitments are moot and that the only issue for discussion is actions by the US to make amends for UNSC resolutions, hostile policy, sanctions, etc.
  • The record of its approach to 6PT with Chris Hill shows that Pyongyang was running a clandestine uranium enrichment program while it sold the cooling tower of its obsolete plutonium program for a profit – no one wants to get diddled that way again.

It doesn’t sound like “diplomatic talks” are penicillin here. We are and should be pushing for real negotiations.

Here’s what you should remember:

One: WMD are only useful to North Korea as leverage to extort resources, not as weapons. (The deterrence angle doesn’t really mean much — after all, there’s a reason no one used military force to destroy the DPRK in the decades since the Armistice).

Two: North Korea requires significant inputs of food, fuel, fertilizer, foreign currency, and other things, merely to survive. Right now, due to sanctions and tight US-ROK-Japan policy coordination, NK is on a Chinese IV drip that doesn’t have much sucrose in it anymore. Therefore,

Three: If their current escalation play is unsuccessful and the world doesn’t capitulate to North Korea’s terms (like the Onion described), regime survival increasingly points to the one way out — to negotiate terms for stopping, rolling back, and relinquishing its nuclear and missile programs.

Obama will be ready.

(end of message from Nelson Report 2/15)

YOUR EDITOR (Chris Neslon)… read a straightforward repeat of standing Obama policy but with the explicit claim that the President won’t accept “diplomatic” talks, which we take to mean general talks which are NOT specifically at a very minimum about putting a freeze on nuke testing and development and missile testing. That’s what the “pause button” means…stop the video…stop all work WHILE we negotiate.

The risks are obvious…the DPRK plays along, gets aid and assistance (but not in advance, the note is clear), and when Pyongyang decides it’s had enough (meaning has what it needs for the time being, or what it thinks is all it can get for now?)…back to “provocations” and the whole process recycles, as it has since 1994.

So…it’s still all about “denuclearization” in reality…but perhaps Obama will settle for an enforced and inspected freeze…assuming one is possible, post the Leap Year debacle? God knows we DO need one, given their apparent successes of late. That the source isn’t explicit on…it’s our reading of possibility born of necessity. Source’s conclusion is simply another way of saying with real denuclearization, all kinds of opening up is possible.

We all heard Chris Hill explain this how many times? Not to criticize Chris’ efforts, which had the full backing of the President and Secretary of State at that point and were certainly worth the try…

JONATHAN POLLACK, Brookings…in discussion with colleague Richard Bush, who agrees with Jonathan:

Chris, Among the three of us, I saw both good news and bad news in this message.

The good news is that the administration is clear that no exploration of negotiations will be possible if NK does not provide unambiguous signals (in words and deeds) of a pause or freeze in its nuclear and missile activities as a down payment on any subsequent talks. The more binding and explicit the better, but there are obviously no signs of this.

To judge from the Asahi article that indicates that [the NSC’s Syd] Seiler and [Amb. Joe] DeTrani made three trips to the North between November 2011 and August 2012 (including at least one meeting with Uncle Jang Song-taek), it is not as if the Administration failed to deliver this message, no doubt conveying on the latter two trips (even after the 2/29 deal had blown up) that there was a window of opportunity if NK demonstrated a readiness to shift course.

Now we know…so much for that — 3.0 [computer slang for Kim Jong-un] has picked up right where Dad left off.

My unease about the source’s message concerns the judgment that “WMD are only useful to NK as leverage to extort resources, not as weapons,” and that “the deterrence angle doesn’t mean much.” On both counts, this is flat out wrong.

It sounds like we are still in the mid 90s/Agreed Framework period…but surely any such hopeful possibilities died a long time ago. It seems to be implying that NK’s nukes are somehow negotiable, but they are not, at least not with the existing leadership and the existing system. I would have thought experience has taught everyone things, so if I’m reading it correctly, this judgment gives me pause.


I think I agree with your interpretation, Chris, but see this statement as quite significant, both for the content and from where it came. It seems to me that, with the Leap Day deal failure and now the rocket and third nuclear tests, the Obama administration is even firmer than before that it won’t have talks for talks’ sake.

It will remain in communication with North Korea (NY channel, etc.), but it won’t sit down to formal negotiations unless and until North Korea agrees to freeze its nuclear and long-range missile programs for the duration of talks. That of course leaves a major issue: what is the definition of a “freeze” (only of tests or including on-site monitoring only of Yongbyon, or on-site monitoring elsewhere)?

Until the Leap Day deal failed, the administration was willing to give a relatively small amount of aid and concessions to reach a freeze agreement. Now it seems clear that the administration can’t/won’t offer incentives for a freeze, and will enter into formal talks only when North Korea unilaterally imposes a freeze of a type and level acceptable to the administration.

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