Commentary / World

Getting U.S.-North Korean talks back on track

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

On Tuesday, North Korea’s vice foreign minister warned that the United States faces “undesired consequences” if it fails to flex on its position on denuclearization by the end of the year. This comes after North Korea publicized its “tactical guided weapons test,” ghosted inter-Korean meetings, issued strong rhetoric toward the U.S. and South Korean governments, and conducted its first summit between Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While some would view all this as a bad omen for diplomatic engagement, this former intergovernmental negotiator sees it as an opportunity. The North Korean government has signaled its willingness to continue negotiations and is simply taking steps to improve its position at the negotiating table. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has shown no major movement in improving its approach to North Korea since the impasse in Hanoi over two months ago. There is now a window of opportunity for the U.S. to adapt its negotiation strategy, and there are four things the Trump administration could do to this end.

First, the U.S. government should assign a new lead negotiator with a dedicated negotiating team. Special Representative to North Korea Steve Biegun lacks the rank, authority and supporting personnel to be effective, and the others involved — e.g. national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — simply do not have the time or issue attention to do much other than disrupt the long-haul negotiating process.

Some will argue that assigning a new lead negotiator is a concession to a Kim regime that has called for the removal of Bolton and Pompeo from the process, but this ignores two things. The first is that Kim just reassigned his Pompeo-level counterpart by moving Kim Yong Chol to another position within his government. The second is that assigning a new senior-level negotiator dedicated to these specific talks is not removal of Bolton or Pompeo but simply acknowledgment that those two individuals have things in their portfolios other than just North Korea.

Assignment of a new special negotiator who is a seasoned Korea hand, has a dedicated team pulled from the interagency, and reports directly to the Oval Office has several benefits. First, it keeps the negotiating team focused on the singular task of changing the status quo on the Korean Peninsula — a herculean effort that demands such attention. Second, it enables the U.S. government to base its negotiating team on the Korean Peninsula to afford ready access to the North and South Korean governments. Third, it affords the government a single team in which to unify interagency interests, to produce synchronized strategic messaging and to execute complex negotiations.

The second way to improve the U.S. negotiation strategy is to target broader interests than simply “final, fully verified denuclearization,” or FFVD. The myopic focus on FFVD violates two core principles of negotiating: Always negotiate interests, not positions, and never expect to get agreement on your opening position.

Ultimately, FFVD was the U.S. government’s opening and only position. The inflexibility of the U.S. side reflects a lack of clarity of its underlying interests. Why is it that the U.S. does not want a nuclear-armed North Korea? Is it a proliferation concern? Is it because administration officials do not believe deterrence will work in preventing a North Korean nuclear attack? Is it because the Kim regime flouted the rules-based international order to develop its nuclear arsenal? All of the above? Each of those things presents a different set of interests that could be secured through more flexible positions than “denuke or bust.”

The U.S. government needs to shift its focus to other North Korean concessions. A reasonable U.S. interest is to shape North Korea into a responsible state. That is a tall order, but not impossible through negotiations. Such a negotiation would require agility — an ability to shift approaches, to use effective strategic messaging, and to read and react quickly and confidently to signals from the other side. The only way to do that is to identify interests clearly and maintain enough flexibility in achieving them.

Third, the U.S. government must improve its strategic messaging vis-a-vis North Korea. Unfortunately, it has underutilized this critical instrument of power and has been inconsistent with its messaging thus far. The only constant has been an insistence on FFVD, but even that has seen differing opinions on the definition of “denuclearization.” This can be helped by having a new lead negotiator and dedicated negotiating team. Among their other tasks would be to develop talking points and core messaging that could be used across the U.S. government.

It would also be helpful to synchronize messaging from the White House down the chain to United Nations Command. There are institutions in place and activities in work to support peace on the Korean Peninsula, and the U.S. government should collectively and consistently be highlighting these things. For example, U.N. Command has conducted trilateral negotiations with North and South Korea for implementing the inter-Korean military agreement, recently coming to terms on opening up peace trails in the Demilitarized Zone.

Highlighting the success of these existing institutions not only shows that progress is possible, it reminds key players that U.N. Command has facilities and personnel in place to support working-level negotiations. For a negotiation looking for consistency and progress, the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom may offer a venue for getting broader U.S.-North Korean negotiations back on track, but the messaging has to be there to signal this.

Finally, the U.S. government should take advantage of Kim’s proposed deadline. In his speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly on April 12, Kim declared that he intends to give the U.S. until the end of the year to bring greater flexibility to the negotiating table. The U.S. government can capitalize on this.

While some observers viewed Kim’s remarks as a threatening ultimatum, this former negotiator sees it as a positive sign. Kim offered a reasonable deadline for progress in talks, once again signaled his primary interest as sanctions relief, and opened the door to a soft reset in format and aim of negotiations. The U.S. government has an opportunity to execute the aforementioned recommendations while addressing Kim’s proposed deadline with a counterproposal: Schedule regular working-level meetings at Panmunjom (or other neutral territory) with the goal of an end-of-year summit provided there has been enough progress in those lower-level meetings. This option responds to Kim signals, seizes the initiative to move talks to the working-level and firmly puts the ball back in North Korea’s court.

If the U.S. government can implement any of these four improvements in its negotiations with North Korea, it will greatly improve its chances of success at the table. While that success cannot be guaranteed, what can be guaranteed is that an inability to adapt will lead to a repeat of what we saw in Hanoi.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was the deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.