A Taepodong-2 rocket is launched from the North Korean rocket launch facility, North Korea, April 9, 2009.
KCNA / Reuters

Almost everyone working on North Korea in Washington seems to have convinced one another that negotiating with the country is a waste of time. The Obama White House is no exception. Acting on the faulty premise that Pyongyang alone was responsible for the breakdown of six-party talks in 2008, the administration insists that North Korea satisfy a series of preconditions -- including agreeing to a halt to uranium enrichment and nuclear testing -- before returning to the table. Yet, as nuclear envoys from the North and South get together on Wednesday in Beijing, Washington is missing a real opportunity to take the lead in reining in Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs by trying diplomatic give-and-take in earnest.

It is an article of faith in Washington that the North cheats on every deal. Granted, Pyongyang's brinksmanship and aggressive bargaining behavior have never made diplomatic give-and-take easy, and they will not now. But that is hardly a reason for Washington to shrink from testing the North's intentions face to face. Indeed, any concessions will prop up the regime, but two decades of isolation and embargo have done little to cause its collapse, or, for that matter, stop its nuclear-arming. The North's internal regimentation and denial of human rights are surely abhorrent, but only engagement can bring about the changes Washington desires, however grudging and gradual they may be.

In fact, since Pyongyang shut down its Yongbyon reactor, it has not been able to generate more plutonium, produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, or conduct the additional missile and nuclear tests it needs to develop its new deliverable warhead and more reliable missiles. But it could do so in 2012. The only way to prevent such a nuclear tsunami is to work from an honest accounting of recent events, exploit Pyongyang's energy needs, and, over the long term, chart a path toward signing a peace treaty.

A brief recounting of historical facts shows that for the better part of two decades, stonewalling the North has consistently produced dangerous developments. Indeed, Pyongyang began acquiring the means to enrich uranium in 1997, but only after the Clinton administration was slow to live up to its end of the Agreed Framework, the U.S.-North Korean pact freezing North Korea's nuclear effort. When the Bush administration confronted the North over enrichment in October 2002 and refused further negotiations, Pyongyang resumed its plutonium program, stepped up acquisition of enrichment equipment, and proclaimed itself a nuclear-armed state.

Yet the North has demonstrated more restraint than it is usually given credit for. Until last year, the only way for North Korea to make the fissile material it needs for nuclear weapons was to remove spent nuclear fuel from its reactor at Yongbyon and reprocess it to extract plutonium. But North Korea stopped reprocessing in 1991 -- three years before signing the 1994 Agreed Framework -- and did not resume it until 2003. Pursuant to a six-party accord reached in February 2007, it shut down its reactor at Yongbyon and has kept it shut since. In so doing, it has denied itself many bombs' worth of plutonium.

Similarly, it has conducted just four sets of medium- and longer-range missile tests in twenty years. And every one of them came in direct response to disengagement by Washington or to what Pyongyang considered acts of bad faith by the United States.

In Pyongyang's view, it was not alone in failing to live up to the six-party agreements -- and it has a point. In the second-phase six-party accord, Pyongyang had pledged to provide "a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs" and to disable its plutonium facilities at Yongbyon, pending their permanent dismantlement. In return, it was promised energy aid, an end to U.S. sanctions, and removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Pyongyang provided that declaration, but, under pressure from Seoul and Tokyo, President George W. Bush delayed the delisting and sanctions easing until Pyongyang agreed to cooperate in verifying the declaration. The 2007 accord said nothing about verification, which was left to a later phase of negotiations. Yet, even after Pyongyang accepted arrangements that might have allowed the West to ascertain exactly how much plutonium North Korea had extracted in the past, Seoul, with Washington's blessing, suspended delivery of promised fuel oil. The Obama administration continued down the same misguided course.

Predictably, Pyongyang retaliated. In late January 2009, it began assembling a rocket, which it test-launched the following April. Spurning a Security Council statement that condemned the launch and imposed further sanctions, Pyongyang immediately began preparations for its second nuclear test, which it conducted a month later. Cue additional U.N. and U.S. sanctions. North Korea's response, in turn, was to reveal both a new missile facility and a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, underscoring the futility of sanctions in curbing its nuclear activities.

Still, in return for energy aid, Pyongyang is ready to negotiate with Seoul to ship out the fuel rods needed to restart its nuclear reactor, and has said as much to Washington and Beijing. Indeed, energy aid is a key quid pro quo for Pyongyang, a critical need for its economy. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il may also be willing to suspend enrichment in return for temporary energy supplies, but permanent dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear and missile production facilities will likely require more sustained energy assistance to power its already weak economy. One possibility is to connect China's or South Korea's energy grid to key sites in the North, although their willingness to do so remains in question. Such transmission could always be switched off if Pyongyang fails to comply with its obligations.

The need for energy aid is why, in his recent summit meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Kim Jong Il showed interest in a natural gas pipeline running through North Korea from Russia to South Korea. That idea was first broached three years ago in a summit meeting between Medvedev and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Skeptics argue that such an arrangement would allow North Korea to cut off the flow of gas, but so could Moscow and Seoul if the North does not denuclearize. The fact that veto power exists both inside and outside North Korea would reassure Pyongyang that its partners are serious about the deal.

But there is more than energy to the equation. The North wants to reconcile with Washington. For more than two decades, Pyongyang has called for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that terminated the Korean War. It is inconceivable that Pyongyang would dismantle its nuclear and missile programs, never mind its nuclear weapons, without such a treaty. As long as the United States and South Korea remain its foes, it says, it feels threatened and wants to strengthen its deterrents to counter that threat. The Lee government in Seoul has resisted the idea, contending that it would lead the withdrawal of U.S. troops or the end of the alliance. Washington seeks no such outcome, and as Seoul recognizes that, real talk on a treaty can move forward.

Such a treaty would have immediate benefits. It could reduce the risk of military clashes on the peninsula, a risk that dates back to 2008, when Lee came to power, determined to get tough with the North, and has increased since. Lee backed away from a potentially far-reaching summit agreement signed by his predecessor with Kim Jong Il that included a pledge "to discuss ways of designating a joint fishing area in the West [Yellow] Sea to avoid accidental clashes." Lee's renege triggered a war of words, which culminated in a confrontation in the West Sea on November 9, 2009 -- just what the 2007 summit accord had sought to forestall. Pyongyang avenged that defeat with the sinking of a South Korean navy corvette, the Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors. Seoul bolstered its deterrence by conducting military exercises, and then, in November of 2010, the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing four South Koreans.

Washington and Seoul have been full of talk about the need to deter future Cheonans. But steps taken to bolster deterrence can -- and do -- provoke clashes. In short, deterrence alone will not keep the peace on the peninsula. The only way out is a peace process, negotiating a series of interim peace agreements as stepping stones to a treaty.

So what would a roadmap toward peace look like?

A first step could be what Seoul once called a "peace declaration." Signed by the United States, North and South Korea, and perhaps China, Japan, and Russia as well, such an declaration could mark an end to enmity by reiterating the language of the October 12, 2000 U.S.-D.P.R.K. joint communiqué stating that "neither government would have hostile intent toward the other" and confirming "the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity." Clearly, the Lee government's misgivings would have to be allayed first for this to happen.

A second step long sought by Pyongyang is a "peace mechanism" to replace the Military Armistice Commission set up to monitor the ceasefire at the end of the Korean War. It would include the United States and the two Koreas -- the three parties with forces on the ground in Korea. China, which would be a signatory to any peace treaty, might opt to participate as well. The peace mechanism could serve as a venue for negotiating a series of agreements on specific confidence-building measures such as the joint fishing area in the West Sea and an "open skies" arrangement allowing aerial reconnaissance flights across the DMZ.

Kim Jong Il says he remains committed to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. How far is he willing to go? Everyone in Washington has an opinion. The Obama administration might be better off paying less attention to speculation around Washington and instead sitting down to negotiate with the North Koreans -- and test Kim Jong Il to see if he means what he says.

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  • LEON V. SIGAL is Director of the Northeast Asia Security Project at the Social Science Research Council and author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.
  • More By Leon V. Sigal