The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Dilemmas Posed by the US–North Korean Nuclear Deal

March 2, 2012

North Korea’s unexpected willingness to commit to a moratorium on uranium enrichment, nuclear testing, and long-range missile launches—and to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back inside the country’s sensitive nuclear facilities—highlights the fundamental dilemmas that the United States and its allies must confront in dealing with Pyongyang’s secretive and tyrannical regime.

Recognizing these realities, and the difficult choices they force, it is unlikely that the deal will become as “historic” as some media reports have already claimed it to be. The Barack Obama administration would do well to be cautious.

Many governments have welcomed the US–North Korean agreement, which was apparently negotiated during recent talks in China. Most important, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea—the other parties in the so-called Six-Party Talks—have each announced their support, though Tokyo and Seoul are clearly eager to see Pyongyang take concrete steps rather than simply promising action. Their skepticism is clearly justified, as real and sustainable progress will require grappling with three major dilemmas.

The first dilemma is whether or not to support the survival of North Korea’s bizarre and repressive government, which is arguably the world’s only remaining truly totalitarian system. On one hand, North Korea’s people deserve much better and its leaders deserve nothing. On the other hand, however, North Korea’s people—and others in the region—could suffer considerably if Pyongyang’s rule collapses abruptly.

The Obama administration has elected to provide food aid while seeking some level of monitoring over its distribution. Many in the United States who are justifiably troubled by North Korea’s regime and its conduct have already been critical of this choice.

Moreover, since the US–North Korean agreement is widely viewed as the beginning of a negotiating process rather than the end, the administration will face the same choice over and over again—particularly if past talks with Pyongyang are any guide. How far down this road is President Obama prepared to go?

The second dilemma is whether or not to trust North Korea’s leaders. The answer to this question is relatively easy today; few in Washington, Tokyo, or Seoul have confidence in Pyongyang’s reliability in view of its conduct during and after previous talks. The problem is that if there is any further progress with North Korea, each successive step will require greater levels of trust.

This raises questions not only about the reliability of the assurances that North Korean representatives offer, but also about the ability of the 28-year-old Kim Jong-un—or whoever else might be running the country individually or collectively—to deliver what negotiators say they will deliver. Few outsiders can offer informed judgments, or even informed speculation, about the inner workings of one of the planet’s most inscrutable political systems.

At the same time, Mr. Kim and his backers are likely to have similar questions about Washington, asking both whether the Obama administration will be able to follow through with assistance commitments and whether the United States has abandoned perceived efforts to overthrow the North Korean government. The more the administration is critical of North Korea’s leadership to reassure its domestic critics, the greater the suspicion in Pyongyang.

The final dilemma is how to fit negotiations with North Korea into wider American foreign policy objectives. Israeli officials have already pointed out how hard this will be by arguing that the understanding between Washington and Pyongyang cannot be a model for interaction with Iran.

Here, the challenge is that the United States wants to demonstrate that negotiations can successfully resolve complex nonproliferation challenges like the one in North Korea without establishing a precedent for Iran to retain a large-scale uranium enrichment capability or—much worse—without Iran actually testing a nuclear device first, as North Korea has done. This is not simply a matter of US–North Korean agreements signaling to Iran what Washington might be prepared to accept; China and Russia are participants in both processes through the Six-Party Talks on North Korea and the P-5+1 talks on Iran, which involve the five permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as Germany.

Overcoming even one of these dilemmas would be a major foreign policy accomplishment for any leading world power. Overcoming all three is a long shot, particularly for the Obama administration, which has few substantive international successes so far in view of deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia’s uncertain direction, and questions about America’s long-term role in Asia.

While North Korea’s moratorium is certainly desirable if it sticks, the president and his top aides should resist the temptation to oversell a surprising but ultimately very tentative step.

    • Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest / President, Energy Innovation Reform Project
    • Paul J. Saunders
    • Paul J. Saunders

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