The Case for a New Nuclear Agreement with North Korea

Previous attempts to reach a settlement between the United States and North Korea have failed due to mutual distrust.

President Joe Biden intends to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the United States’ policy toward North Korea. The reality is that, unless his administration abandons bilateralism and the insistence on “inspection first, discussions later,” his new approach is unlikely to result in a breakthrough in the nuclear standoff with North Korea.

The diplomatic standoff continues because the two parties are unable to find a solution to put their differences aside and trust one another.

Trying to negotiate a nuclear deal between North Korea and the United States is difficult because both sides have great incentives to deceive one another. Washington expects that Pyongyang will cooperate by disarming during negotiations, at which point the United States will be tempted to make new demands. Pyongyang prefers to reap the benefits of collaboration with the United States while also ensuring that its nuclear deterrent remains in place as an insurance policy. As a result, neither party can commit to upholding the terms of any agreement in a credible manner.

When both governments cooperate, they are taking a risk because neither can react against the other in the event of a defection. As a result of its inability to deter an invasion via conventional means, North Korea is pursuing nuclear weapons capability. After denuclearization, the country will be completely helpless in the face of a formidable opponent. The United States, on the other hand, may find it prohibitively expensive to sanction North Korea if it secretly maintains working nuclear weapons. As a result, it is improbable that these two parties will be able to come to an agreement and much less likely that they would be able to keep it over time.

Adding to the difficulty of dealing with mutual distrust is the ambiguity around future intentions. North Korea is afraid that the United States’ commitments will only be valid until the country’s leadership changes or has a change of heart. Following the death of Muammar Gaddafi, who put his faith in the United States to the point of giving up Libya’s nuclear programme, such fears intensified. Gaddafi’s death had fatal implications. They were verified when President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran Nuclear Deal. Kim Jong Un’s determination to keep nuclear weapons under whatever circumstances, as a hedge against an unpredictable future, was reinforced by this latest move.

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The presence of firm pre-conditions makes reaching an agreement with North Korea even more difficult. There are no signs that Kim Jong Un will accede to the demands of the United States. His demands for security guarantees will preclude him from taking any serious steps toward lowering his nuclear weapons in the near future. In the meantime, North Korea’s nuclear programme continues to make strides toward realisation. South Korea’s 2020 Defense White Paper indicated that North Korea has greatly increased its missile capabilities over the past two years, as well as improved the technology for the downsizing of nuclear bombs. Kim stated his desire to substantially expand North Korea’s nuclear weapons in a speech delivered at the Eighth Party Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party, which took place only days before Vice President Joe Biden’s inauguration earlier this year.

The only way to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons is for the United States to reverse course on its nuclear strategy. In order to negotiate a settlement that is acceptable to all sides, Biden would have to restart international discussions, relax sanctions, and make compromises.

This strategy has been tried in the past with mixed results. The Six-Party Talks involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States came to an end in 2009, having achieved very little in their short duration. Although it was multilateral in name at the time, the agreement was actually bilateral in practice, with the bulk of the negotiations taking place between representatives of the two principal adversaries. The remaining parties provided testimony, but they fell short of the one critical duty that could have made a difference: strengthening the legitimacy of the parties’ respective commitments.

Since then, a great deal has changed.

One of the most important reasons why the time is right to construct a new functional contract is that it is convenient.

First and foremost, Pyongyang appears to be more willing to collaborate. The country is experiencing severe economic difficulties. The fact that Kim has publicly acknowledged that North Korea has failed to implement its most recent economic plan demonstrates the gravity of the current predicament. Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic has had a negative impact on the country. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sorely needs a period of stability, which will make him more willing to agree to major concessions as long as they do not endanger the security of his regime.

Second, it is feasible that this time it will be possible to assist North Korea in placing their trust in U.S. security promises. Regional nations are now better positioned to play more active roles in financing the agreement between Washington and Pyongyang than they were in the past. In recent years, China and potentially Russia have increased their interest in and capacity to act as guarantors of an arms control pact. A role for South Korea exists, albeit one that differs from the course of direct inter-Korean collaboration pursued by the current administration in the United States. Seoul can provide its own guarantees, such as a vow to lobby on Pyongyang’s behalf before the United States Congress, in order to improve mutual confidence and understanding. Japan would also play a significant role in this endeavour as well.

The ability of North Korea and the United States to overcome their mutual distrust will ultimately determine the success of any agreement. The possibility of a nuclear solution in the near future may be realised if they take advantage of the current favourable moment to initiate a virtuous loop of trust-building.


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