Victor D. Cha has writen a new book about North Korea, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. At a recent Carnegie Council presentation (audio and video available), Cha was characteristically pessimistic about prospects for peace with Kim Jong-un’s regime. This anecdote offered a brief, humorous reprieve.
I was personally involved in one of these security assurances in the context of the six-party talks, where we were negotiating a document in which we sought language saying that the North would give up all of their nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs. In exchange for that, the North Koreans wanted language with regard to a security assurance.
Naturally, our instinct was to go back to see what had been said before by U.S. presidents and offer that language. The North Koreans, with the Chinese behind them, said, “No, we don’t want that language. We’ll come back to you with language.”
They came back to us with language. The language was: “The United States affirms that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and that it will not attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons.”
We looked at this statement and we said, “Are you serious? You want us to get this approved?”
They said, “Yes.”
The Chinese chair the six-party talks, so they hold the pen. They gave us this statement. They said, “See if you can get this approved.”
We said, “Okay, we’ll try.”
We went back to the embassy, cabled it back, gave all the reasons why, then went to bed. I thought we were done really. I thought we were going to be coming back the next day because I didn’t think we could get this language approved.
The next morning we come back in and they tell us, “This language is approved.” We said, “Really? All right.”
So we went to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse where we do these negotiations, went to the drafting room where the Chinese and the other delegations were waiting for us. We walked into the room and we said, “This language has been approved. Let’s get going.”
The Chinese stopped and they said, “Really?” [Laughter]
The South Koreans and the Japanese, who are our allies, kind of stood there and they were like, “Really?” because that’s not what they like to hear.
The North Koreans stood there and they were like, “Really?”
At which point the Russian delegation said, “We’d like a recess.”
The Chinese head of delegation said, “Recess? We haven’t even started the morning session. Why do you want a recess?”
It was very unclear why they wanted a recess. But they insisted on a recess. The Chinese, being the hosts that they were, said, “Of course you can have a recess.”
So before we even got into the room to start the negotiation, we all stepped back out, everybody got coffee.
The Russians then took the North Koreans into a side room. What often happens, as many of you know, in these multilateral negotiations is that there are a lot of side meetings that take place in the bilateral context. They wanted a recess because they wanted to talk to the North Koreans.
So 20 minutes go by. We’re waiting. They come out. The North Koreans head straight back into the main negotiating room.
The Russians said, “Okay, we’re ready. Let’s go back in.”
We kind of looked at them like, “You’re not going to tell us why you wanted a recess? Is there something we should know?”
They said, “Oh yes. We told the North Koreans that we thought you, the United States, were serious this time.”
We said, “Thank you. We think we’re serious too. That’s why we’re at these negotiations.”
They said, “No, no, no. We told them that this language that you approved is basically the equivalent of a negative security assurance. We told them that we think this is quite important because we, the Soviet Union, throughout the Cold War tried to get a negative security assurance from the United States and you would never give it to us. So we think that this is quite important and we told the North Koreans that.”
So we thought, “Thank you, that’s very kind of you, that’s very helpful.”
Of course, it ended up not being very helpful because that language today sits-and you can look it up-in the 2005 joint statement, a very important statement, very important clause.
Essentially, the North Koreans just-you know, they had wanted this statement for years. Then, once they got it, they put it in their pocket and they moved on to the next thing that they wanted.
One of the things that I personally learned from that experience is it’s not a security assurance that they want, in spite of all my academic friends who told me that this was the problem. When I went into government and joined the Bush Administration, they all came out and criticized me and said, “This is what they should be doing, not following a hard-line policy.”
But in the end it’s not a security assurance that they want. They want a regime assurance. They want an assurance that if they go into a process of economic reform, which will inevitably put pressure on a closed dictatorship like this, they want some sort of assurance from the outside world that their regime will be kept intact, that the Kim family will be kept intact.
Of course, that is not something that the United States can do. It may be something that China is willing to do, but it is not something that the United States can do. So that’s the sort of assurance that they want and that’s not the sort of assurance that the United States can give.
And, that’s about as pleasant as it gets. China will extract what it can from North Korea, the U.S. will avoid a regime guarantee, and South Korea is itching to destroy Pyongyang. There’s aso this insight about China and the Six Party Talks.
The short-term tactic for North Korea has been to try to restrain them, because every time the North Koreans do something bad, what does everybody do? The first place everybody goes is to China and they blame China-“Do something about this.” This is the last thing China wants. Every time North Korea undertakes a test like this, the Chinese name gets dragged through the mud, everybody blames the Chinese, all the pressure is on the Chinese.
That’s why every time we meet with the Chinese they always say, “Just get back to six-party talks.” That’s what they want to do. They want to get back to six-party talks. Why? Because if we’re back at six-party talks all the pressure comes off China. All the pressure then comes onto the United States to negotiate. This is the problem that the Chinese have.
I’m looking forward to reading – I’ve downloaded a Kindle sample already – more of these anecdotes, not so much Cha’s depressing conclusions.
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