Symposium | The Stakes in Asia

North Korea: Getting Back to the Table

By Duyeon Kim

Tagged Biden AdministrationChinaForeign PolicyNorth Korea

On April 30, after a months-long policy review on North Korea, the Biden Administration revealed that it will embark on a “calibrated, practical approach to diplomacy” while maintaining sanctions pressure toward complete denuclearization. It is a prudent approach, but the road ahead will be fraught with landmines, to say the least. President Joe Biden inherited a greater North Korea challenge than his predecessors. Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities are significantly more advanced than any American administration imagined since the first nuclear crisis of the 1990s. Past agreements unraveled over politics, transparency, verification, and time. North Korea sees the U.S. democratic electoral system as a strategic weakness it can take advantage of—despite complaining about inconsistent policies—by raising tensions to increase leverage and simply waiting out administrations that will not offer deals to its liking. Changing American administrations, meanwhile, need time to rebuild their North Korea teams, coordinate their inter-agency process, and deal with domestic politics and other urgent foreign policy matters.

All the while, the regime steadily mass produces missiles and nuclear warheads, and perfects its weapons technology by testing ballistic missiles that can be used in battle, or could even start a war by miscalculation. Pyongyang continues to exploit the gray zone between war and peace with its ballistic missile tests, bellicose rhetoric, cyber attacks, nuclear weapons development, and occasional conciliatory gestures. North Korea’s extreme self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic and U-turn in its economic policies to more centralization do not necessarily portend an imminent or looming internal crisis. North Korea has proven resilient in the harshest of economic times before. Its exorbitant earnings from cybercrimes and illicit financial activities have also become a lucrative source of funding for its nuclear weapons development, and it is easy to speculate that these activities could also finance parts of its economy.

The Biden Administration is right to take an alliance-based approach to global challenges. But the left-of-center South Korean government, whose political constituency is not particularly fond of U.S. influence, is fundamentally at odds with the United States on specifically how to achieve denuclearization and peace. It believes that front-loading on concessions, rather than pursuing principled engagement, is the right formula. It will require more work for the allies to coordinate policies, at least until South Korea’s presidential election next March. But it is much too soon to predict whether South Korea’s next president will be elected from the ruling progressive party again or the opposition conservative base.

The Biden Administration also came in with a handicap it certainly never asked for: Any bold, creative initiative will be compared to Donald Trump’s unconventional, erratic style. Both engagement and pressure campaigns come with political risks. Still, policymakers cannot let the risks of optics deter them from ever trying bold methods. President Biden’s agenda is already packed with pressing domestic and foreign priorities. But the stakes are too high to let the North Korean nuclear dilemma give rise to even bigger regional and global problems.

Negotiating with North Korea under Kim Jong Un

In January, Kim Jong Un declared he is pursuing tactical nuclear weapons, and the latest short-range ballistic missile tests in March are putting those plans into action. Inter-continental ballistic missiles are certainly of grave concern as they can hit the American homeland. But the shorter-range missiles are also dangerous because they target U.S. forces and allies in the region and are designed to evade missile defenses and challenge U.S. ability to preemptively strike them down. During Kim Jong Un’s reign, Pyongyang also made statements signaling a desire for Cold War-style arms control talks in which both sides work toward mutual nuclear weapons reductions and disarmament. Such posturing is certainly quizzical for a country that is not remotely on par with America’s nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, Pyongyang appears to be seeking to move beyond the age-old barters of denuclearization-for-economic aid to define the boundaries of future bargains.

The core principles used to deal with Pyongyang in the past should be adapted to a new leadership style and circumstances. North Korea today is not entirely the same North Korea of the past. Kim Jong Un will continue to retain the national objectives enshrined by his grandfather and father, but he has already put his own tactical flair on them. For example, his negotiating style exhibits some noticeable differences from his predecessors. In the past, under his father, it was a guessing game for American and South Korean negotiators to decipher what North Korea truly wanted from a growing wish list, until the eleventh hour of negotiations, before striking an agreement. Back then, Pyongyang also pocketed many concessions that were offered along the way.

Under Kim Jong Un, however, the regime is noticeably more transparent about its demands from the onset, as it has sometimes even revealed clearly in public statements. In both inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea negotiations over the past three years, Pyongyang has demanded bargains in a very tight box. If the regime does not receive its demands in whichever round of negotiations are ongoing, then its negotiators have walked away from the table, and Pyongyang has maintained its maximalist position as preconditions for the resumption of dialogue.

Ever since the February 2019 Hanoi Summit and October 2019 Stockholm meeting between envoys ended without agreement, Pyongyang has set unreasonable preconditions for dialogue: the elimination of what it calls a “hostile U.S. policy” toward it. This refers to the elimination of key UN sanctions, the end to all U.S.-South Korea military drills including computer simulations, the absence of human rights criticisms and name-calling, and the eventual withdrawal of the U.S. military presence from the peninsula.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who still hopes to stake his legacy on Korean peace, publicly urged President Biden to engage with North Korea. But it is Pyongyang that needs be to persuaded to drop unreasonable preconditions for dialogue, already having rejected the Biden Administration’s backdoor diplomatic outreach in February. The challenge is how to lure North Korea back to the negotiating table. We have been here before. It is even trickier this time as the regime fears importing the coronavirus, even pulling its participation from the Tokyo Olympics.


Further details of the Biden Administration’s North Korea policy will be disclosed as it is being implemented. These suggested principles and priorities could guide how Washington finetunes its actionable steps as circumstances evolve:

Recognize that everything is a negotiation that will take months and years. Negotiations do not take place only in direct talks between chief envoys. They are on going in preparations for talks, and in meetings with any North Korean representative as well as with the leader. The process toward denuclearization, peace, and normal relations will take years, if not decades. Past deals took months, sometimes years, to ink one. Implementing any agreement(s) will take longer. The Biden Administration should consider agreeing with Pyongyang that their first meeting will be aimed at beginning a discussion on ways to normalize relations. This framing of the objective, if leaked or disclosed by North Korean statements, could be met with fire in some Washington circles and among allies because of the absence of the word “denuclearization.” But in direct talks, Washington should clearly communicate that denuclearization and human rights are essential components of normal relations.

Be more deliberate, less reactive, and regularly test assumptions and cognitive biases. Be open to bold creative methods, surprises, and tactical adjustments. Despite North Korea’s opaqueness, we have become more knowledgeable about the country over the past three decades of observation and negotiation. But there is more to learn. We have also naturally accumulated a degree of cognitive biases and assumptions. Every past assumption cannot always be applied entirely to how we expect Kim Jong Un to react to American tactics and proposals going forward. He is negotiating in the present and future, unbeholden to his father or grandfather’s playbook.

While American negotiators should face their counterparts with eyes wide open, armed with an informed game plan, they should still be open to any possibility of seriously negotiating for complete denuclearization. Pyongyang certainly has not yet shown credible signs that it will abandon its nuclear weapons. In fact, we are seeing the opposite. But any glimmer of opportunity for nuclear disarmament, whatever its time horizon may be, can only be gleaned during real negotiations, at best, over time.

It is important to utilize all communication lines with North Korea, but expressing too much eagerness to talk has also been shown to devalue American power in the past. A holistic policy can still be implemented in the absence of, or during, stalemated negotiations. History has also shown that Pyongyang exploits both U.S. engagement and pressure. A maximum engagement campaign alone will not guarantee a pause in illegal activities or nuclear weapons development. Any engagement strategy must require reciprocal steps by North Korea.

Diplomacy should take the lead. But decision makers should also be open to tactical adjustments that include employing a multidimensional pressure campaign, as difficult as it might be both politically and practically, to impose costs on violations of international laws. Sanctions alone will not solve the nuclear problem, but they could help curb nuclear weapons funding, penalize illegal activities, and serve as chips to bargain away incrementally in negotiations.

Seek to negotiate a comprehensive denuclearization-peace roadmap, or an initial deal first that explicitly agrees on end goals, based on an action-for-action incentive system. The agreements reached during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations began with a deal outlining end states for key issues both nuclear and non-nuclear, followed by subsequent deals on implementing their shared goals. This formulation would be the best scenario during the Biden Administration, but it could take months, if not years, to strike the first deal. Still, agreeing on a denuclearization-peace roadmap outlining tradeoffs along pathways to denuclearization, normal relations, and peace would provide predictability for both sides, placing all outstanding issues in a framework that Pyongyang can understand. Implementing a comprehensive agreement will inevitably be conducted in phases requiring continued negotiations. Narrow deals focusing only on one denuclearization target like the Yongbyon nuclear complex or ICBMs—absent a comprehensive framework—will grant Pyongyang room to dictate the terms, pace, and outcome of both the negotiation and denuclearization processes.

One way to save time might be to instead agree on the first phase of denuclearization (capping nuclear development) and peace (or normal relations). This approach has its risks too. It will be crucial for an initial or interim deal to, at the least, explicitly include a clear agreement on denuclearization and end goals for outstanding issues in its preamble or final clauses. Absent these, the initial phase could result in a nuclear-armed North Korea indefinitely because of the regime’s negotiating tactics. Even under the best of these circumstances, this option would require the Biden Administration to make a difficult decision—to be prepared for this first phase to also be the last one and accept the price it would have to pay for any consequences. This means potentially legitimizing North Korea as a nuclear state forever, damaging U.S. alliances, unraveling the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, inspiring other nuclear aspirants like Iran to copy North Korea’s playbook, and raising the possibility for a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia.

Any format for an agreement should entail an incentive-based system in which progress depends on each party continuously taking a step forward in order to receive corresponding benefits. This framework also presents risks because the process could collapse in the event of a protracted diplomatic stalemate or Pyongyang could drag out the process with its delay tactics.

Nevertheless, in the first phase, North Korea should be persuaded to submit an initial declaration of fissile material production facilities. Receiving a full declaration can be done in stages. Pyongyang bristled at this demand during the Trump Administration, opposed to revealing state secrets and fearing the list could reveal targets for an American strike. But submitting a declaration is the international norm by which the regime abided during the Bush Administration. North Korea should be assured that the verification process will be conducted in a cooperative, business-like manner and that it will not be blamed or shamed for any discrepancies in the initial declaration, which are common. Rather, follow-on discussions would seek clarity and accuracy, leading to a full declaration. In return, Washington could choose from a range of modest-value measures such as time-bound sanctions exemptions and a declaration of no hostile intent and no new sanctions.

It would also be prudent for Washington to avoid referencing the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit’s Joint Declaration and the 2018 Inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement in a future deal with North Korea. Otherwise, Washington’s hands will be tied, and implementing a future deal could become more complicated in a process that is predestined to be tricky. Those agreements allowed North Korea to maintain its interpretation of denuclearization—that is, no U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula, no U.S. nuclear umbrella protecting South Korea (and Japan), and no U.S.-South Korea military exercises involving nuclear or nuclear-capable assets. The 2018 Singapore Joint Statement also regressed from past agreements by failing to define denuclearization while referencing the 2018 Inter-Korean summit’s declaration. It also gave Pyongyang the impression that Washington agreed to its preferred order of future negotiations that placed denuclearization last. In contrast, all U.S.-North Korea agreements struck during the Clinton and Bush administrations clearly define denuclearization to mean North Korea without a nuclear weapons capability and South Korea committed to its nuclear abstinence.

Discussions on a peace regime could be conducted in tandem, but formal talks should begin after enough denuclearization measures have been taken to prevent denuclearization negotiations being held hostage to peace negotiations. Steps to establish a normal relationship can certainly be agreed upon early—including lifting travel bans and exchanging liaison offices—in exchange for corresponding denuclearization measures.

Engage in proportionate bargains and avoid giving up too much too soon. The key task and challenge for Washington will be to configure appropriate bargains to incentivize Pyongyang to take denuclearization steps. Washington will run out of cards to play if it gives up too much too soon. If so, North Korea will, as it has in the past, pocket early gains and walk away from the process without making significant progress on denuclearization. Pyongyang will divide its nuclear program into as many parts as possible, known as salami-slicing tactics, to negotiate them away slowly to retain its nuclear weapons. Negotiators will need to determine how valuable Pyongyang’s offer is to the regime, based on strategic and political importance, and whether the value is proportional to its asking price.

Washington should also look for early substantive successes involving some sanctions relief in exchange for some denuclearization measures. At the Hanoi Summit, Kim offered to abandon some of his Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for the lifting of five sectoral sanctions imposed by the United Nations. This certainly is not a proportionate bargain as key engines of their nuclear program are located outside of Yongbyon. UN Security Council sanctions were imposed on sectors of the North Korean economy whose revenue was believed to finance nuclear weapons.

Instead, if Pyongyang’s offer from Hanoi is still on the table, then a U.S. counteroffer of time-bound sanctions exemptions (i.e., a pause) on one sector like textiles could be worth the trade because sanctions cannot easily be reimposed for noncompliance after they are lifted. This type of barter should be explored, keeping in mind that Pyongyang may reject it and instead seek big-ticket items.

Regularly consult with allies and partners, and factor in implications for the region. The North Korea problem is not only a nuclear one but is entangled in a web of non-nuclear regional issues. Any American administration will surely negotiate an agreement that serves U.S. interests first even if the deal is a comprehensive one. Still, the contents of an agreement with North Korea will also shape the future strategic choices of Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, and Moscow, as well as the regional order.

The Biden Administration’s policy, and particularly a future deal, will most directly affect South Korean domestic politics and inter-Korean politics. These outcomes could then circle back to affect the trajectory of U.S. plans and even policies for the region. For example, they could affect the South Korean presidential election next year. Or they could encourage more voices in South Korea to call for their own nuclear weapons. For the broader South Korean public, North Korea remains a threat whether it possesses one or ten nuclear weapons. South Korean President Moon’s progressive support base evidently does not regard North Korea’s nuclear weapons as a direct threat, while some other circles in South Korea see them as an opportunity, albeit in the distant future, to eventually become a nuclear-armed united Korea. The fate of Seoul’s nuclear decisions will impact Japan, which will affect China and then perhaps even Taiwan. The same goes for the fate of Tokyo’s nuclear decisions.

China cannot solve the nuclear problem for us, but it has the power to temper assistance to Pyongyang. Beijing has proven its sanctions leverage is effective, if it chooses to use it, before and during “fire and fury.” Beijing should be reminded, in private talks, that its influence can diminish as North Korea’s nuclear weapons advance; that the weapons can also be pointed at China; that Japan and South Korea could consider their own nuclear options; and that Washington will have no choice but to increase its military presence and assets in the region. A two-way conversation certainly should not be expected, but such messages should still be conveyed. China will also want a seat at the table if and when peace regime discussions commence as it is a matter of regional order for Beijing.

Establish a gray-zone strategy and impose penalties on all bad behavior. Kim Jong Un has been skillfully employing multi-dimensional gray-zone tactics, outmaneuvering the United States by launching provocations that refine its nuclear weapons technology while seeking to gain advantage and influence below the threshold of retaliation, outright military conflict, and a global response like sanctions. An American gray-zone strategy coordinated with allies and partners should involve multiple audiences, multiple domains (conventional, cyberspace, diplomatic), multiple timeframes (crisis and longer game), as well as multiple levels within societies. Penalties on lower-grade provocations could include sanctions on cybercrimes and third-party entities involved in trade and illicit financial activities with North Korea. Neither deterrence nor escalation management alone is enough. The lack of a coordinated response is likely feeding the regime’s perception that it can set the agenda with Washington by waging provocative behaviors during periods of diplomatic stalemates.

Strengthen extended deterrence. U.S. nuclear policies and capabilities serve a dual purpose of deterring a potential North Korean attack and reassuring allies of U.S. commitment to their defense. If allies regard the U.S. nuclear umbrella as effective and dependable, then incentives will remain low for seeking their own independent nuclear deterrent. The catch will always be that tangible demonstrations of allied commitment—like B-52 bomber flyovers after North Korean nuclear and ICBM tests, large-scale U.S.-South Korean field exercises, and deployments of missile defense systems—are viewed as provocative by Pyongyang and Beijing. Washington should nevertheless dial up these activities as North Korea increases the degree of its provocative actions.

Prepare for crisis scenarios and black swans. Kim Jong Un’s health remains a wild card in the North Korean system. His prolonged disappearance from the public eye last year led to a flurry of uncorroborated reports and speculations of an imminent death. We will experience more mysterious absences and health rumors throughout his life as we did during his father and grandfather’s rule. Thinly sourced reports must be met with caution, but the United States and its allies must be prepared for all scenarios. While the North Korean system is not susceptible to a coup or mass uprising any time soon, allies must nevertheless be prepared for any black swans.


Dealing with Pyongyang also requires learning how to dance in the gray, rather than on strictly black-and-white terms. North Korea enjoys operating in the gray. Their messages are steeped in nuance as they deftly seek gains between the lines set by their counterparts.

These suggestions are far from perfect as negotiations and international relations are fluid. But they could serve as a guide when adapting past principles to current realities. All parties will need to make compromises. Even if diplomatic negotiations commence in earnest and achieve breakthroughs, twists and turns are inevitable.

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Duyeon Kim is an adjunct senior fellow with the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, and a columnist with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Her expertise includes the two Koreas, East Asian relations, nuclear nonproliferation, and arms control.

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