A Third Way – the United States and North Korea, by Keith Luse


[The following keynote presentation by Keith Luse was delivered at the “Engaging Enemies” Conference, co-hosted by the ANU-IU Pan Pacific Institute, the East Asia Foundation, and other co-sponsors on 18 April 2013. Keith Luse was Senior Professional Staff Member in the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As an East Asian expert, he was East Asia Foreign Policy Advisor/Senior Professional Staff Member to (former) Senator Richard Lugar. –CanKor]

keith luse

Keith Luse

During my initial trip to North Korea in 2003, at a location about an hour north of Pyongyang, one of North Korea’s top American analysts turned to me and said, “We know that Senator Lugar is a very stern person, as his facial shape is the same as President Putin in Russia.”

Three days later on an extended excursion out of Pyongyang to view sites distributing American food aid, an unexpected confrontation ensued with one of my hosts whom I angered during a discussion about U.S. policy toward their country. The North Korean official said, “We made a mistake in allowing you into my country — you are very deceptive. You have a round face of compassion like Congressman Tony Hall who has assisted us with food aid, but you have a heart of hardness.”

And so began my engagement experience with North Korean officials. Five trips and several meetings with North Koreans later — within and outside of North Korea, I am admittedly amazed that all-out conflict has not reoccurred due to a miscalculation by one side or the other.

Through a long list of experiences revealing misunderstandings on the part of North Koreans, I have learned that some decisions and judgment calls made by North Koreans about the United States are based on faulty or incomplete analysis. Likewise, American analysis of North Korea, its leaders and their intentions is incomplete on occasion as well. Officials in both countries, do not sufficiently incorporate cultural realities of the other into their respective analysis and assessments.

If you were to ask an official in Washington as to whether the U.S, should engage with North Korea, the answer might depend on how engagement is defined. Is the purpose and nature of our engagement with North Korea to prevent or to provoke war? Should we engage with North Korea in ways that would facilitate regime collapse or promote economic reform within the country? Should engagement encompass a combination of these or other possibilities?

The environment or background within which engagement occurs between the U.S. and the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea is complex, largely negative and continually deteriorating. Well-stated are the words of Professor Walter Clemons of Boston University in a paper prepared for this Conference.

“Of the many factors shaping conflict in Northeast Asia, none has been more pervasive and persistent than the hubristic outlook of each player. Weighty by itself, hubris has also multiplied the deleterious impacts of other forces. Americans and Koreans — both in the South and the North–have often been blinded by hubris in dealing with each other. Their arrogance and disdain for each other has damaged all parties and aborted opportunities for mutual gain.”

In support of Professor Clemens’ premise, is the example of name-calling of the other country’s leaders by officials in the U.S. and North Korea. Double standards are employed by both countries as well. U.S. officials request permission to travel to North Korea and throughout the countryside where possible, and yet the U.S. Denies requests for North Korean officials in New York to attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.

In the event involved countries are able to navigate through the present tensions without going to war, the prospects of successful engagement are minimal. Eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been the priority of the United States for years. Washington has failed.

Unfortunately, the determination that North Korea is a bad actor is viewed by some as sufficient incentive to not develop a comprehensive engagement strategy comprised of incentives and disincentives, calibrated as necessary to bring and keep North Korea at the table. We wait for collapse of North Korea’s government, or for the day when North Korean officials decide they will negotiate — never mind that their scientists are not waiting to further develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons which can be transported anywhere in the world today, via North Korea’s intricate spider’s web of hundreds of trading companies, overseas branches and affiliates operating in scores of countries. North Korea does not need ballistic missiles to transport weapons of mass destruction to the United States.

Yes, we should engage North Korea actively and on all fronts and as author Andrei Lankov has stated, we should encourage or work to facilitate more reform within the country. However, there are problems, some of which seem insurmountable, associated with the U.S. attempting to engage North Korea.

1) Mutual distrust. While on a separate trip to the North, in response to a question from a North Korea leader, I stated assuredly that President Bush was committed to a security assurance for North Korea. The official then referred to a U.S. news account quoting an unnamed Bush Administration official that the United States was developing a short list of attack sites within the North.

2) Mutual lack of confidence. North Korean negotiators know from experience that simply because a U.S. Administration makes a promise, the U.S. official(s) cannot guarantee ongoing implementation of that commitment. American negotiators have learned that as they interact with North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, North Korea’s military or security service leaders may have other thoughts.

3) Mutual disdain. Personal name calling by leaders of both countries.

4) Mutual lack of understanding. North Korean officials do not fully understand the workings and interaction between the Executive Branch and Congress. Likewise, a popular Washington guessing game is predicting who is making what decision in Pyongyang.

5) Mutual lack of emphasis on acknowledging cultural realities and how those realities impact the decision making process, especially in North Korea.

6) Mutual rhetoric when warning about consequences of actions. We have witnessed an abundance of bluster by North Korea during the last few weeks. Through the years, the words of U.S. officials decrying North Korean bad behavior and threatening consequences have often lacked integrity with North Korean officials. They have listened as American Presidents, Secretaries of State, Secretaries of Defense and others decry “outrageous” acts by North Korea — crossing red lines that will not be tolerated — their acts are “provocative”, etc.

North Korean leaders have been pleased with their success of manipulating tough-speaking American leaders. If American officials are going to draw red lines and threaten consequences, they must speak explicitly in terms the North Koreans understand, and then American leaders must be willing to implement. Too often, American leaders talk tough to display strength to the American people and to reassure South Korea without factoring the long-term impression of their inaction on North Korean leaders.

The menu of discussion points when engaging North Korea has narrowed over the years. Successive Administrations of the United States government — Democrat and Republican — abandoned any serious effort to hold North Korea accountable for the 8000 Americans listed as missing at the end of the Korean Conflict. Senator Lugar wrote to Secretary of Defense Panetta regarding an October 20, 2011 “Record of Arrangement”, signed by U.S. and North Korean military officials reactivating the search for the remains of American servicemen who died during the war. The Senator asked as to why there was no reference to American POWs, a remarkable omission given that South Korean officials estimate there are a few hundred South Koreans — civilians and military, still held against their will in North Korea from the time of the Korean Conflict.

I’m uncertain if any Americans remain alive from the war in North Korea, nor do I know how many were taken to Russia, China or elsewhere. However, U.S. officials operate with the view that “we have no evidence of live Americans in North Korea”. Consequently, the POW issue is off the table and another possible irritant to Pyongyang is removed.

Human rights conditions within North Korea are usually de-emphasized by the Executive Branch — Republican and Democrat — as U.S. officials have been concerned that discussion would anger the North Koreans and discourage their engaging on the nuclear issue. As Congress was considering the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004, the Executive Branch lobbied against the bill, which eventually passed both Houses of Congress unanimously. Congress later established the position of U.S. Human Rights envoy to North Korea and yet before and after that occasion the Executive Branch has not given human rights priority status during direct talks with North Korea — thereby giving North Korean officials a pass rather than risk angering them — all of this while massive human rights atrocities continue in North Korea.

Reunification of divided families from the North and the South is among several other issues that have been left off the table so that the United States could focus on the one issue of eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Where do we go from here?

One option is that outlined in a recent policy report by the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford, suggesting that South Korea should take the lead in dealing not only with inter-Korean relations but also the nuclear issue. “With Washington judging that North Korea is not willing to give up its nuclear weapons program, there appears to be no political basis for further U.S. negotiations with North Korea.”

Another option would be to adopt a model along the lines of the successful Indonesia-Aceh negotiations. Given the mutual distrust, mutual disdain, mutual lack of confidence, and mutual misunderstanding, constructive bilateral talks may not be feasible in the foreseeable future between the United States and North Korea. The Six Party process has failed. China’s role has not proven to be of enduring significance or benefit in efforts to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Rather than pursuing bilateral or multilateral talks in the traditional sense, perhaps a third way should be considered — i.e. identification of a third party — a country or distinguished individual, respected by both the United States and North Korea, to serve in an intermediary role. Perhaps a country or individual outside of Asia would be preferable.

No option, however, will work until North Korea returns to the table. The United States should not accept lack of engagement, displaying the resolve to establish, to implement and to carefully calibrate a package of incentives and disincentives so that North Korea officials will determine it is in their interest to constructively engage. All issues should be placed on the table for discussion. Thank you.

2 Responses to “A Third Way – the United States and North Korea, by Keith Luse”

  1. Casper van der Veen Says:

    Great analysis. In The Netherlands and other European countries, a lot of people are seeing prospects for a positive role for the European Union or European diplomats in North Korea. Because of their relative neutrality, European diplomats are especially fit to play a mediating role. With the recently established “European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea” (http://www.eahrnk.org/about), we are trying to explore possibilities of engaging with North Korea in a positive and potentially productive manner.

  2. David Hart Says:

    I would say, as a US citizen, that the fact that all our promises of aid, help, etc. to the DPRK have ultimately been broken, and that President Bush never treated any leader of North Korea with any respect, but constantly claimed they were evil, that the leaders of North Korea have every reason to distrust the United States. We promise them aid, recognition, help with their economy in exchange for their halt of building nuclear weapons. They begin to hold up their end of the bargain, and we withdraw aid and help. Seeing what happened to Ghaddafi in Libya, Hussein in Iraq, and what is happening in Syria and what we are proposing for Iran, is it any wonder that the leadership of the DPRK acts the way they do? We are not credible as a negotiating partner when all we really want is regime change.


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