Lee Sigal on North Korea



While in New York at the Korea Society, I had a chance to catch up with Lee Sigal. Since his Disarming StrangersSigal’s many writings on North Korea have had a single, overarching theme: missed opportunity. In a detailed blow-by-blow of recent diplomacy in Arms Control Today and a shorter piece at the National Interest, Sigal updates his running narrative and underlines what he believes are American missteps vis-à-vis the North.

I strongly agree with Sigal’s core contention that countries do not unilaterally disarm and that North Korea’s nuclear program will only be rolled back through negotiation. He notes that the Chinese demand for negotiations was explicit during the negotiation of UNSC Resolution 2270, as a plain reading of the resolution makes abundantly clear (see paras. 49 and 50 in particular). Through his track-2 contacts with North Koreans, he also offers some interesting detail on how the North conceives of their proposal for a “peace regime” and how it might be tied to the nuclear negotiations.

He agrees that the North Korean offer of January 2015–offering an unverifiable freeze for a cancellation of exercises—was a complete non-starter. But he outlines some of the points of flexibility in the proposal and how a “peace regime” might require little more than a signal of intent. Sigal thinks in terms of an initial declaration that might do little more than outline the stated intention of negotiating a peace treaty; he reminds us of the October 2000 joint communiqué with the US that did little more than outline lack of hostile intent.

Where we disagree is on the possible utility of sanctions and whether North Korea has any interest in negotiating with respect to nuclear weapons. While Sigal is right that sanctions will not work on their own, it is not clear that they can’t have a positive role in the context of negotiations; the Iranian deal makes this point clearly. But the larger problem is North Korean intent. Sigal admits in passing that Pyongyang has shown little interest to date, but believes that the post-2270 diplomacy will still revolve around whether and how to sequence peace regime and nuclear negotiations.

I have argued that if fully implemented, North Korea could be forced to at least recommit to the 2005 joint statement, even if doing little more than that. But Sigal’s piece actually contains a very interesting interpretation of current North Korean policy that implies much deeper pessimism. Sigal parses a number of North Korean statements on the byungjin line to suggest how the leadership squares commitment to development and nuclear weapons. The answer can be found in a minimal deterrent that permits Kim Jong Un to roll back conventional military expenditure and perhaps even demobilize soldiers that are locked into nearly a decade of totally unproductive activity. Lee and I both hit on the parallel to Eisenhower, who similarly saw nuclear weapons as permitting continued demobilization.

But if Sigal is right on this latter point, it seems to make meaningful nuclear negotiations even more difficult to initiate. It is fine to tinker with this or that precondition for negotiations, and even to relax them altogether. But what is the point of negotiating if there is absolutely no interest on North Korea’s side to do so? Whatever you think of Sigal’s line, his narrative of recent diplomacy in these two pieces is worth a read.

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