Shadow Government

Obama needs leverage for North Korea talks

To further Peter's thoughts in his recent post, I agree that the Obama administration is right to reject China's call for more talks with North Korea, and to refuse any further negotiations with the DPRK until Kim Jong Il's regime changes its behavior. Yet one can't escape the irony that the Obama administration is following the same policy of refusing to negotiate that brought much self-righteous criticism from many commentators against former President George W. Bush. And as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama made the centerpiece of his foreign policy a pledge to do just the opposite, specifically offering to talk without preconditions to hostile regimes.

Let me be clear -- I support the White House on this aspect of their North Korea policy. But I also think this might be a good occasion for reflection by commentators on all sides, myself included. It seems that the same voices that so indignantly condemned the Bush administration for its occasional refusal to engage in unconditional negotiations with unsavory regimes (such as Iran) now fall silent when the Obama administration does the same thing. Perhaps this is another example of what Ross Douthat perceptively described earlier this week as the "partisan mind" at work.

It is also a reminder to partisans and observers on all sides to resist caricaturing each other's positions. I hope this latest impasse with North Korea at least helps elevate the policy debate beyond the hackneyed and simplistic "negotiate or not" rut. As any serious policymaker knows, in practice negotiations are one tool in the policy arsenal. They are not a neutral tool, as the act of negotiating inherently incurs potential risks (such as the other side using it to play a delay and dissemble game while still pursuing a nuclear program) along with potential rewards. And it is a fact that negotiating, especially if public, does confer some sense of legitimacy and political capital to the other side. Think of the debates in the 1980s over whether the odious apartheid regime in South Africa should be "isolated" or "engaged," and many critics rightfully pointed out that engagement would give the government a degree of legitimacy that it craved but did not deserve.

A realistic approach to negotiating must include leverage. For the United States, the most effective entry point for negotiating with an adversarial regime begins with assessing what kind of leverage we can bring to the negotiating table, and what kind of negotiating posture it would give us. Such a leveraged posture could include inducements we possess that the other side desires, or coercive instruments that are either in place and the other side wants lifted, or that haven't been triggered yet and the other side wants to avoid. If a careful "leverage assessment" reveals a weak hand, then it is usually best not to enter into unconditional negotiations, especially because in those cases the best type of leverage might actually be the prospect of negotiations, desired by the other side.

In the case of North Korea, the lead officials in the Obama administration realize that they have little leverage, in part as a result of the concessions made in the last two years of the Bush administration (such as removal of the DPRK from the state sponsor of terror list, and lifting of the Banco Delta Asia sanction along with returning Kim Jong Il's $25 million of ill-gotten gains) that failed to secure a meaningful improvement in North Korea's behavior. Refusing to negotiate from the current posture is a good starting point and helps turn North Korea's (possible) desire for talks into a source of some small leverage. To gain more leverage, reimposing the financial market sanctions on the private accounts of the regime's leaders would help, as would revisiting the state sponsor of terrorism list. Equally important will be exploring ways to change China's cost/benefit calculation for its support of the DPRK. Perhaps after these kinds of steps are taken, it will be time to talk again.


Shadow Government

Time to give up on six-party talks?

According to the New York Times, the Obama administration is resisting Beijing's call to respond to the latest crisis on the Korean peninsula by launching another round of the six-party talks. The administration is wise to resist the temptation to put the short-term desire to respond to heightened tensions ahead of the long-term need to resolve the North Korean problem once and for all.

As Mike Green explained, this is a temptation to which previous Administrations, including the Bush administration, fell prey. When all of the options look bad, sitting down and talking with North Korea can seem, on the surface at least, to be a least-bad way of "doing something." But it has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work this time.

The theory behind the six-party talks was plausible, and many people (including myself) endorsed the approach as a way of breaking a regional impasse that derived from several structural conditions.

  • Condition 1: North Korea favors regime preservation above all else and viewed nuclear weapons as its best guarantor of regime survival. Only if its possession of nuclear weapons could be seen as threatening its own survival is it plausible that the regime would agree to an adequate diplomatic solution.
  • Condition 2: Given decades of economic sanctions, U.S. non-military leverage over North Korea is limited. Not zero, as we found out when we started deploying new financial sanctions, but substantially less than the leverage China wielded. Only if we can get China to wield that leverage would North Korea begin to feel sufficient pressure that might alter condition one.
  • Condition 3: The United States and China have fundamentally different preference orderings regarding the various possible outcomes. While both might prefer a nuclear-free peninsula above all, China next prefers living with a North Korea with nuclear weapons to living next door to a collapsed North Korean regime. The United States, by contrast, clearly prefers North Korean regime collapse to living with a nuclear-armed North Korea. Nothing either side can say to the other will change this preference ranking. Only if other costs and benefits are applied can the strategic calculus change.
  • Condition 4: Given that the status quo trajectory defaults in its favor (i.e., reinforces condition three), China is happy to free-ride off of U.S. diplomatic efforts, even fruitless efforts. Only if China has more of a stake in the success of the diplomacy will they be likely to shoulder any actual burden.

The six-party talks were a plausible way to change these conditions. The idea was to give China an equity stake in the success of the non-proliferation effort. As host and co-leader, failure of the six-party talks would become China's failure. North Korea's belligerence would, of necessity, be directed at all of the six-party members, including China. Few people thought the six-party talks would by themselves yield a diplomatic solution. More people, myself included, thought that the collapse of the six-party talks, if demonstrably North Korea's fault and demonstrably China's problem, might adjust the incentives sufficiently to elicit more responsible Chinese leadership on the security issue.

That theory was tested and found wanting. As expected, North Korea repeatedly demonstrated bad faith. Yet the hoped-for response from China never materialized. Instead of ratcheting up pressure on North Korea, China has responded to North Korean belligerence with successive rounds of concessions and cover-ups. The situation rather resembles a weak parent seeking to excuse the public misbehavior of a spoiled child.

The Obama administration is wise not to rush in to rescue China from this latest embarrassment, and it is wise not to make other concessions that China is demanding -- for instance, restricting U.S. naval activity in the Yellow Sea. Instead, the United States should take visible steps to deepen cooperation with our regional treaty allies. And we should insist that China take similarly responsible steps to reign in North Korea.

The six-party talks only make sense if China is willing to shoulder its regional security responsibilities. Until that is demonstrated, there is not much to talk about.