North Korea needs to negotiate with US
It has often been said that the sign of a good deal is one that leaves neither party completely satisfied. Finding that point, however, requires give and take where each side receives something that it needs while also making sacrifices.
With the breakdown in talks between the United States and North Korea in Stockholm, however, Pyongyang looks increasingly uninterested in the type of negotiations that might lead to an agreement.
The United States went into the Stockholm talks with new proposals to explore with its North Korean counterparts, and leaks about the specifics of those proposals suggest that they did bring new ideas to the table.
Yet after a day of talks North Korea’s lead negotiator Kim Myong-gil when asked if the two sides would meet again soon told reporters, “It has been almost 100 days since the leaders’ meeting in Panmunjeom and (the U.S. has) not presented any new initiative. Do you think they will come up with a new one in two weeks?”
Kim further suggested that it was up to the United States to move on its position rather than North Korea. People’s Armed Forces Vice Minister Kim Hyong-ryong sounded a similar note, recently saying in Beijing that “the United States and the South Korean authorities must refrain from any actions disrupting the stability of the situation and come up with a new way for solving the problem.”
Yet there are no indications that North Korea has put forward any new proposals of its own.
While playing hardball is a traditional North Korean negotiating tactic, and Pyongyang may hope that it gives it leverage in the talks, it’s not conducive to reaching a deal. And time may be running out.
Earlier this year North Korean leader Kim Jong-un set the end of the year as a deadline to reach any deal, yet there have only been eight days of negotiations during the last 18 months.
Despite Kim Myong-gil’s suggestion, it has been Pyongyang’s own reluctance to meet with the United States that has slowed the talks. If Pyongyang was serious about reaching a deal, it would be meeting more frequently with the United States.
Contrast North Korea’s approach to talks with two other major diplomatic negotiations currently taking place — Brexit and the U.S.-China trade war.
There was significant skepticism that Boris Johnson and other pro-Brexit members of Parliament truly wanted a deal with the European Union. But there was constant communication between the two sides and frequent meetings.
Even when the United Kingdom was putting forward unworkable solutions and playing its own version of hardball with the European Union, it was at least engaging in diplomacy. In the end, the United Kingdom and the European Union were able to reach an agreement to revise the terms of Brexit, pending Parliamentary approval.
Similarly, senior U.S. and Chinese officials have met on a fairly frequent basis to discuss how to resolve the ongoing trade conflict between the two countries. While the talks have gone in fits and starts, and so far have only produced the recent small deal, there is at least an ongoing effort to solve the standoff and both sides are putting forward proposals.
Perhaps the lack of talks reflects a North Korean belief that they only need to deal with U.S. President Donald Trump, but the lesson of Hanoi is that there needs to be serious work done on the working level before Kim and Trump can try to break any deadlocks. They could also reflect a lack of seriousness on North Korea’s part.
While the U.S. proposals in Stockholm may not have been acceptable to North Korea, the process won’t work if Pyongyang is unable to put forward its own proposals so each side can begin to see where they can narrow their differences.
In Hanoi, Pyongyang put an offer on the table to dismantle Yongbyon in exchange for the lifting of the economic sanctions that have been imposed since 2016. It would be helpful for Pyongyang to put forward new proposals for how to manage the tradeoff between dismantlement and sanctions relief, but also what types of security guarantees it needs, what type of relationship it wants with the United States, and what type of economic future it wants after denuclearization.
If North Korea’s goal is for the United States to negotiate with itself, the talks will fail, but if North Korea engages there may still be an opportunity to reach a deal.
While Trump’s future is clouded by the current impeachment inquiry in the United States, history suggests that if Pyongyang were to reach a substantive deal with the United States it would have a good chance of surviving even Trump’s removal from office.
North Korea is right that time may be running out on reaching a deal, but it is Pyongyang rather than Washington or Seoul that needs to think seriously about putting forward new ideas and what it is willing to concede.