Grand Bargain with North Korea Will Not Look Like This

The good folks at Bulletin of Atomic Scientists alerted the Korean to this article, Time for a Grand Bargain in North East Asia, by Professor Walter C. Clemens. This is a timely piece, as the talks between U.S. and North Korea held earlier in Geneva ended again with a whimper. Prof. Clemens, expert in diplomatic negotiation tactics with former communist countries, believes that there is a bargaining room for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. The outline for his proposed grand bargain contains these points:
● Diplomatic relations should be established between the United States and Democratic People's Republic of Korea and between the Republic of Korea and the North.

● A peace treaty ending the Korean War should be signed by Washington (for the UN), Seoul, Pyongyang, and Beijing.

● Area countries should reaffirm that all of Korea is a nuclear-free zone; the International Atomic Energy Agency should verify dismantlement of nuclear weapons; and all parties should renew their commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

● The United States should agree to supply fuel oil and electric power facilities to the North equal to those pledged in the 1994 Agreed Framework. All parties should agree to build a pipeline that brings Siberian oil and gas to both Koreas on terms advantageous to each country -- an idea approved by the North's Kim Jong-il and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last summer.

● North Korea should permit direct foreign investment and business operations and reaffirm the property rights of all enterprises the South establishes in the North.

● All parties (including Japan and Russia) should agree to share their resources and know-how with the North and to facilitate its participation in international trade and banking organizations.

● The North and South should agree to reduce all branches of their armed forces by 50 percent in stages from 2011 to 2015.

● The UN and the US and its partners should end all sanctions against the North.

● Both Koreas should agree to a demilitarized zone in the waters near their border, in which neither bases nor maneuvers are permitted. The South would retain the five islands it was awarded in 1953, but fishermen from the North and South could operate in the West Sea up to the waters under Chinese jurisdiction.
The Korean is loath to criticize someone who clearly has better expertise than he. Prof. Clemens has been studying negotiating with communist countries since the 1950s. He has an impressive number of publications, including a book that deals with negotiation tactics with North Korea. In contrast, the Korean is just a guy who reads a lot of news. So please take the Korean's position for what it's worth:  I think this proposed grand bargain is delusional, and based on a fundamentally incorrect understanding of North Korea.

(More after the jump.)

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Any discussion about negotiating with North Korea must begin with this fundamental understanding. For any bargain in which North Korea is involved, North Korea wants only three things:  (1) regime survival, (2) regime survival, and (3) regime survival. For North Korea, maintaining the Kim Dynasty dictatorship is the absolute, paramount value. The value of everything else is measured simply as a function of how much it contributes to the survival of the regime.

Anyone discussing North Korea must fully understand the extent to which the priority of regime survival dwarfs any other concerns. North Korea is not irrational -- far from it. But her rationality is entirely dedicated toward ensuring that Kim Jong-Il (and now Kim Jong-Un) stays in power, just like he has been for the last few decades. In this sense, North Korea is not even a normal communist dictatorship, much less a normal country. Serious concerns that may bother a "normal" communist dictatorship -- say, a decade-long famine that caused more than 600,000 people to die from hunger -- mean nothing to the North Korean regime. The regime is absolutely uninterested in joining the world economy, if joining the world economy leads to the collapse of the regime (which is the most likely result.)

Another point that requires a fundamental understanding is that nuclear weapon is one of North Korea's last remaining cards. The cards that North Korea holds are (1) the nuclear weapon, and (2) military provocation at the level just enough to not cause an all-out war. All-out war, at this point, is out of the question for North Korea, as the combined military of South Korea and United States will quickly annihilate North Korea in case of a war. (South Korea will certainly suffer a great deal of damage, which is why South Korea will never invade North Korea first. But if the war comes to South Korea, it will be completely ready to annihilate North Korea, and South Korea's damage will be nothing like the damage it took in Korean War at any rate.) In other words, asking North Korea to give up nuclear weapon is essentially asking it to give up everything she has. If Kim Jong-Il ever forgot the significance of this demand, the pictures of the last dictator who gave up his nuclear program, lying dead in a meat locker, would have surely reminded him of it.

These fundamental understandings about North Korea are the reason why I think Prof. Clemens' proposed "grand bargain" is delusional. Essentially, Prof. Clemens is asking North Korea to give up her nuclear program for:
  • Diplomatic relations with United States and peace treaty
  • End of sanctions and participation in the world economy
  • Fishing in the Yellow Sea
This list of inducements is scoff-worthy for a dictator who is being asked to give up the last card he has. When it comes to ensuring regime survival, peace treaty is not even worth a pitcher of excrement. How can a peace treaty, which only theoretically prevents U.S. and South Korea from taking military action toward North Korea, possibly be superior to a nuclear deterrence? Ending sanctions means even less. North Korea has been living with sanctions for decades, and the regime sincerely does not care about the plight of the North Korean people who are hurt by the sanction. Finally, the Yellow Sea point is so trivial that it does not merit a discussion.

The primary misunderstanding at work in Prof. Clemens' proposal is the same one that has bedeviled many a North Korean analyst -- even those who are unimpeachably smart, competent and respectable. The misunderstanding is that North Korean regime is interested in being a normal government that is interested in national development. The regime has amply demonstrated in the last few decades the fallacy of that idea. But the attraction of normalcy is so strong that, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, North Korean analysts believe that North Korea will disarm itself in exchange for, say, economic development, which will more than likely disrupt the regime's grip on the country.

Denuclearizing North Korea requires offering something that neither U.S. nor South Korea (rightly) can possibly offer -- survival of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un's regime for the foreseeable future in its murderous, oppressive glory. This is not an easy puzzle to solve, and I do not have a better alternative to offer at this moment. (My sense is that reunification will happen before there will be a denuclearization. I will elaborate on this in a later post.) But it is important to at least understand what we are dealing with. Prof. Clemens' "grand bargain" indicates, alarmingly, that even a respectable American thinker does not really understand what North Korea wants.

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