Wake Up, America: North Korea Is Running out of Patience

Recent rhetoric from U.S. officials has done little to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table

While the Obama administration negotiates with Iran, North Korea is giving every indication it intends to attempt another satellite launch this fall. If, as expected, the UN Security Council responds with more sanctions, Pyongyang will take that as a pretext for conducting its fourth nuclear-weapons test. As its Foreign Ministry spokesman put it on May 30, “[T]he only way to prevent a war between the DPRK and the U.S., which lack even elementary trust in each other and have long stood in mistrust and hostility only, is for the former to bolster up its defense capabilities so as to ensure balance of forces.”

To many in Washington, further arming by Pyongyang is a foregone conclusion. That assumption is wrong.

The belief in North Korea’s determination to arm is belied by the fact that from 1991 to 2003, it reprocessed no fissile material and conducted very few test launches of medium- or long-range missiles. It suspended its weapons programs again from 2007 to early 2009.

Over the past two years, while it continued to enrich uranium and resumed generating plutonium, it refrained from testing what it called its new “miniaturized” nuclear weapon or test launching any of its new longer-range missiles, a signal that it wanted to renew negotiations with the United States.

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To many in Washington, such negotiations, unlike those with Iran, seem pointless if North Korea is unwilling to give up the handful of crude nuclear weapons it has. That ignores the potential danger that Pyongyang’s unbounded weapons programs pose to U.S. and allied security. It is on the verge of testing an advanced nuclear device that could be mounted on new, as yet untested longer-range missiles.

That assumption also ignores the possibility that Pyongyang may be willing to suspend its nuclear and missile programs if its security concerns are addressed. That was the gist of its January 9, 2015 offer of “temporarily suspending the nuclear test over which the U.S. is concerned” if the United States “temporarily suspend[s] joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity this year.”

Like most opening bids, that was unacceptable, but instead of probing further, Washington rejected it out of hand within hours.

It turned out that the North seemed ready to settle for modulating rather than cancelling the largest exercises and seemed prepared to suspend not just nuclear testing, but also missile and satellite launches and fissile material production in return. Its main point was the need for reciprocal steps to address both sides’ security concerns.

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That opened the way to a resumption of talks this January, but after some back and forth, that initiative was squelched in Washington. Instead, U.S. officials continued to insist that Pyongyang take unilateral steps to show it was serious about denuclearizing and ruled out reciprocity by Washington. As the senior U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, put it on February 4, “North Korea does not have the right to bargain, to trade or ask for a pay-off in return for abiding by international law.”

The Obama administration tried again to open talks last month, but North Korea was unresponsive.

Some attribute this change of course to Kim Jong-un’s internal troubles. While resisting military demands for a budget increase, demands that may have led to the defense minister’s execution, it is possible Kim decided to “strengthen his deterrent” in his own version of Eisenhower’s bigger bang for a buck. While that explanation is plausible, it conveniently ignores Washington’s unwillingness to meet Pyongyang partway.

To some, it seemed that negotiating with Iran and North Korea at the same time was more than the traffic could bear, but compared to the heat for dealing with Iran, fanned by Israel and Saudi Arabia, opposition to negotiating with Pyongyang is tepid.