The Future of U.S.-North Korea Relations

Rash speculation about regime change in North Korea could be dangerous. Washington must proceed with caution.

Benjamin Franklin may have best characterized the circumstances in which North Korean elites find themselves: We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

By transferring power from father to son, the Kim dynasty has avoided the problem that often plagues regimes such as theirs—a murderous struggle for power. Unlike Kim Il-sung, who ruled with an iron hand, Kim Jong-il had to bargain among competing elites in the military, party and cabinet, though as far as anyone knows, his decisions, once made, were final. Whether Kim Jong-un will be able to maintain that degree of control remains uncertain.

The United States soon will have an opportunity to probe that question. This week, a third round of bilateral talks with the North was to have been announced. The subject of the talks was a prospective deal to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

A suspension of the North’s nuclear and missile programs would benefit the security of the United States and its allies in Asia. Unbounded nuclear arming by North Korea would jeopardize regional stability and undercut President Obama’s nonproliferation objectives.

Kim Jong-il had offered to suspend uranium enrichment at Yongbyon, monitored by international inspectors, in return for U.S. food aid—or “nutritional supplies,” in the parlance of the State Department. The denial of aid had been taken as evidence by Pyongyang of Washington’s hostility.

Kim Jong-il also had publicly committed himself to observing a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests while negotiations proceeded. That is urgent because Pyongyang says it has a miniaturized nuclear device, which it has yet to test. Miniaturization would enable it to mount a warhead on its missiles. It also needs test launches to assure the reliability of its missiles, including a new one that remains untested.

North Korea also was prepared to move toward a permanent shutdown of its plutonium reactor at Yongbyon. It has observed a 2007 six-party agreement by not restarting the reactor by refueling it. In return for energy aid, it would turn over its fresh fuel rods in bilateral negotiations with Seoul.

Resuming those talks as soon as Pyongyang’s mourning period is over would test Kim Jong-un’s ability to fulfill his father’s legacy.

An expression of condolences to the North Korean people might smooth the way. That is just what President Bill Clinton did when the United States was negotiating the 1994 Agreed Framework. While talks were under way, Kim Il-sung died. The talks resumed after a few weeks of mourning, and the deal was struck. Yesterday, Secretary of State Clinton sought to reassure the North, but she stopped short of offering condolences.

The permanent dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs will require more serious diplomatic initiatives by the United States, South Korea and Japan. They could transform their relations with North Korea by signing a peace treaty and normalizing political and economic relations with that troubled country.

Those who yearn for regime change are playing up the possibility of a power struggle in Pyongyang and instability within the country. But rash speculation could be dangerous. The prudent course would be to resume negotiations soon and test whether Kim Jong-un is ready to follow his father’s lead and suspend his nuclear and missile programs.

Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York and author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.