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Nuclear Negotiation with the DPRK: Where Now?


Below is the text upon which Dr. Ford based the initial remarks he presented on March 28, 2011, to a “Track II” dialogue meeting between DPRK officials and U.S. nongovernmental experts organized in Germany by the Aspen Institute Germany. The text below summarizes a longer paper (“Challenges of North Korean Nuclear Negotiation) that Dr. Ford presented to the conference, and which is now available – with NPF’s thanks to Aspen Institute Germany – on the Hudson Institute website.  (Click here for a PDF of Dr. Ford’s longer paper, and here for what the DPRK delegation told the press after the meeting.)

Good morning.  Let me begin by thanking the Aspen Institute Germany for organizing this important event, and of course to our gracious hosts here at Schloss Risstissen.  U.S.-DPRK nuclear negotiations have been stalled for a long time now, and for some good reasons, but I think it is valuable for us to use this opportunity to explore where things lie today and whether there is any meaningful prospect of their revival – and, more importantly, of some kind of successful resolution.

Having been out of government since the previous U.S. administration, I can of course speak only for myself on these questions.  Nevertheless, I value this chance to exchange views with the DPRK officials present here today.  We can discuss details if need be as our discussion proceeds, but let me start by keeping my remarks very broad in the form of a brief summary of the longer paper you should all have before you, in which I analyze the bargaining dynamics of U.S.-DPRK nuclear talks since the early 1990s and offer my thoughts of where it might yet be possible to go from here.

I submit that the most important lesson to draw today from the difficult history of nuclear negotiations between the United States and the DPRK may be about what isn’t possible – namely, a continuation of the negotiating process as it has hitherto been practiced.  North Korea’s nuclear policy choices and repeated failures of negotiating good faith have convinced most of the U.S. policy community that (a) negotiated denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula may well not be possible, (b) Pyongyang would not honor any such agreement anyway, and (c) engaging in talks under the conditions of “crisis diplomacy” that the DPRK prefers is to reward destabilizing tactics and to encourage additional such problems in the future.  Consequently, if there is a future for engagement with the DPRK on nuclear issues, it will have to await a fundamental change in approach by Pyongyang.

As a result of North Korea’s actions over the years, a functionally anti-engagement, pro-isolation and pro-pressure attitude seems to be emerging as a new U.S. consensus.   As most of the U.S. policy community now sees things, the only way forward that does not involve worsening pressure and isolation is for North Korea to demonstrate a genuine strategic decision in favor of denuclearization.  Since there is also a growing U.S. consensus that North Korea is not interested in abandoning its nuclear weapons and taking the steps that would be necessary to implement and verify any nuclear accord, however, the prospects for negotiation look poor indeed.  Because denuclearization is the U.S. priority, there appears, in short, to be very little to negotiate about.

North Korea’s own choices have also helped ensure that even if real negotiations resumed, a genuine resolution of the nuclear problem would be more difficult than ever.  For years, the DPRK benefited in its nuclear negotiations from some degree of foreign ambiguity about its nuclear capabilities and intentions.  For better or worse, actual or purported ambiguity helped facilitate diplomatic “fudging” that made agreements seem more possible by permitting U.S. diplomats to avoid grappling with important but potentially negotiation-impeding issues such as pre-existing nuclear weapons (for the Clinton Administration) and the nature and extent of Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program and nuclear proliferation activities (for the second-term Bush Administration).

Today, however, the DPRK’s actions – for example, in reprocessing large quantities of plutonium, testing nuclear weapons, and revealing a large uranium enrichment infrastructure – have torn away this veil of ambiguity.  Now, Western interlocutors have been left little choice but to insist more firmly, and earlier, than ever upon a full accounting and disposition of all aspects of reprocessing, enrichment, weaponization, and proliferation activity, as well as upon stringent verification measures of a sort that Pyongyang has so far shown no willingness to accept.  North Korea has, in effect, been stacking the game-theoretical deck against negotiated denuclearization – thus, ironically, crippling its own nuclear diplomacy and encouraging outsiders to adopt unalloyed isolation and pressure strategies.

Is there any way to imagine a negotiated way out of this impasse?  While the prospect of genuine success has surely become more remote, no U.S. president has yet concluded that negotiations with North Korea are entirely hopeless.  Moreover, the example of the diplomatic opening to pre-revolutionary Libya in the mid-2000s demonstrates that the United States can accept having a more “normal” and mutually beneficial relationship even with a government the nature and past behavior of which it finds abhorrent.

I know that it will probably seem strange to say this today, at a time when NATO is engaged in military operations to protect Libyans against attack by their own government – and indeed it may now be that even mentioning Libya in connection with a discussion of the DPRK will occasion a neuralgic reaction.  Nonetheless, it remains the case that Libya’s abandonment of WMD several years ago offers a potential model for how to restore long-isolated regimes to a more “normal” relationship with the rest of the world in return for their verified abandonment of WMD and terrorism.  Events in the Libya of 2011 notwithstanding, therefore, its history in 2003 and 2004 may yet be instructive.

Significantly, the “Libyan model” of 2003-04 presents a potential way to sidestep the deep skepticism that North Korean behavior has created within the U.S. policy community.  As noted, it is becoming a new consensus that bargaining to entice North Korea into denuclearization “rewards” DPRK provocations, encourages further misbehavior, and creates moral hazard problems subversive to nonproliferation policy around the globe.  But the example of Libya in 2003-04 demonstrates that an agreement can perhaps be struck nonetheless – not on the basis of the United States rewarding anything, but merely on the basis of what I call the “two normals”: by Washington deciding to treat “normally” a country that has decided to behave “normally” by honoring its international obligations, eschewing terrorism, and returning to adherence and verified compliance with the NPT and other relevant nonproliferation rules.  Particularly for countries that have become sharply impoverished and weakened by international isolation – a condition that describes Libya before the opening and certainly also North Korea today – the benefits of such a deal can be considerable notwithstanding the lack of “rewards” beyond what a country would have received had it not violated international norms to begin with.

Given the DPRK’s track record of deception and deceit in nuclear and other negotiations with the outside world, I do not pretend that it would be easy to reach a deal even on this basis.  It is not, however, impossible.  Libya offers an example of being able, by renouncing WMD and terrorism, to turn around a relationship that was once one of the worst in the world.

Such an agreement – and the up-front transparency that it would require of the DPRK, particularly with regard to the very things about which it has hitherto been least willing to talk (e.g., its uranium program, history of plutonium reprocessing, and nuclear weaponization work) – would no doubt be uncomfortable for the government in Pyongyang.  Such a deal may nonetheless be the best, and indeed perhaps the only, way for the DPRK to enter a “normal” relationship with the United States, and to avoid a grim future of increasing isolation and international pressures.  Such a deal may even be the DPRK’s best way to avoid a future in which one or more of North Korea’s vastly more prosperous and more technologically developed neighbors finds itself provoked into the fuller development of a countervailing nuclear “option,” or in which South Korea and Japan find reason to overcome their historical antagonisms and pool their resources and capabilities in a full-blown anti-DPRK military alliance, or both.

The DPRK, in other words, is in no position to “win” the sort of full-blown strategic and technological competition its policies are doing so much to engender.  But there remains a “way out” for Pyongyang along the lines outlined by President Obama: a future of greater security, respect, and opportunity predicated upon a bold new strategic choice about WMD.  I suspect the DPRK will not be willing to take such a farsighted and decisive step, but I would be very happy to find myself mistaken.

Thank you.  I look forward to our discussions.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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