Policy Area: Multilateral Talks

The Multilateral Mantra And North Korea
Peter Hayes, Nautilus Institute, February 20, 2004

Flying to Beijing for the second round of six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue, American diplomats are chanting a multilateral mantra "CVID CVID CVID" as if repeating it often enough will make it happen in North Korea.

CVID stands for Complete Verifiable Irreversible Disarmament. It is the formula that the State Department is bringing to the talks, saying that North Korea must commit to CVID and commence tangible dismantlement before the United States will outline its roadmap of reciprocal commitments to provide security and development assistance to North Korea.

On February 12, Administration officials confirmed that acceptable "tangible steps" might include a complete declaration by the DPRK of all nuclear activities, especially those related to enrichment activity, but would also have to include a dismantlement action that was not already part of the US-DPRK Agreed Framework before it collapsed in late 2002. Such a step might be to hand over separated plutonium to the United States or a designated third party. What officials insist is not on the table is a reciprocal up-front commitment to normalize political and economic relations with the DPRK if they should commit to CVID. "Payoffs" for North Korean capitulation, they say, come only after the DPRK commits to and implements CVID.

CVID is simply another way of stating that North Korea must fulfill its NPT and IAEA safeguards and non-nuclear obligations, as well as observe the 1992 inter-Korean Denuclearization Declaration. Given that the North has rejected this formula already and has stated its own conditions for returning to the non-nuclear fold, CVID is a non-starter in Pyongyang.

Conversely, CVID is an effective symbolic way of rejecting the past, both the Clintonian legacy of the Agreed Framework, and North Korea's nuclear machinations. But, putting it front-and-center as non-negotiable in these talks is like trying to drive down a high speed freeway while staring in one's rearview mirror the entire time. It's a recipe for catastrophic collision.

What then can US diplomats achieve in Beijing? At best, they hope to agree on holding future working level negotiations with the DPRK involving the six parties on a variety of issues, including the nuclear issue. If no working level talks are achieved, then we will know that the talks have failed completely and the nuclear stand-off in Korea will be complete-exactly what the hardliners in the Bush Administration predict and hope will occur. At worst, this could lead to a North Korean nuclear test and deployment, or some other ambush that the North Koreans dream up at the DMZ or elsewhere.

Why then are US diplomats engaging in faux-diplomacy, knowing that while they may not fail altogether in Beijing, they also cannot succeed in forcing the DPRK to capitulate on American terms to CVID?

The standard account is that the US government is grid-locked over how to handle the DPRK with pragmatic-engagement policy currents colliding with a hardline-regime change policy current. The result is an incoherent river of muddied waters.

However, this account underestimates the role that President Bush plays in formulating policy toward the North. Some attribute the current rigid negotiating stance to the Oval Office's desire to delay negotiations until after the November elections, partly because Bush is preoccupied with Iraq, and partly because it is better from an electoral angle to not be seen "dealing" with evil leaders unless they are dead or in prison, a tendency said to be reinforced by his personal worldview.

Yet another explanation is that Bush delegates authority to his seniors-as he reportedly did to Powell last summer on the North Korea issue at the same time that he told Rumsfeld to butt out--but fails to overrule challenges to this delegation during implementation. Put simply, Bush doesn't back his subordinates and is a weak president-a matter of his ruling style rather than ideology. Still others speculate that for all his post-911 security rhetoric, Bush simply doesn't comprehend how dangerous it is for the North Koreans to now have enough fissile material to make, test and even export nuclear weapons.

But American officials are crystal clear that the multilateral approach to North Korea comes from Bush himself; and that hardliners, especially VP Cheney, have intervened to block Powell from developing flexible negotiating policy options in the preparations for the Beijing talks after Bush put him in charge of dealing with North Korea.

Why Powell allows this to happen-as reportedly occurred in a crucial inter-agency meeting on December 19, 2003 when Cheney intervened personally to reverse the course set by State Department pragmatists in response to Chinese draft declaration at the pending talks-is anyone's guess. Some say he is waiting for the right time to fall on his sword and that the stakes are not yet high enough in the talks with the DPRK to take this ultimate step in confronting Bush.

For now, what this leadership failure means is that US diplomats are going into the Beijing talks with both hands tied behind their back.

This self-induced diplomatic disablement raises the broader question about the Administrations multilateral mantra. Are the Beijing talks actually multilateral negotiations at all? Or, are they just window-dressing for the unilateralist hardline wrapped up in diplomatic doubletalk?

One way to view the talks is through the realist lens of great power politics whereby states either ally with weaker parties to balance an aspiring hegemonic power or bandwagon with the most powerful state. Neither of these dynamics captures what is underway in Beijing. No-one is bandwagoning with tiny North Korea, with or without nuclear weapons. China, Russia, and South Korea do not perceive themselves to be threatened significantly by North Korea's nuclear weapons although they oppose such a capacity for other reasons. No-one is turning up in Beijing to bandwagon with the United States against the DPRK's nuclear threat, as it does not appear to be an important factor in the talks except possibly for Japan and bizarrely, distant Australia which is not even at the table.

At the talks, China, Russia and North Korea form one loose bloc of states that does not accept American hegemony and unilateral dominance of the region and world affairs. Conversely, the United States, Japan, and South Korea have coalesced into a tighter bloc of states insistent that the DPRK play by global rules. Backing this bloc are a rag-tag group of bit players on North Korea such as the EU and Australia who have signed up for the Proliferation Security Initiative. However, the talks themselves have exhibited fluid alignment and each party except for the host, China, has attempted to pick bones with North Korea over one or more issues of bilateral concern while uniformly declaring that the DPRK must remain non-nuclear.

In spite of the American hardline, therefore, the talks do not appear to reflect the exercise of raw power in pursuit of traditional realpolitik. Rather than an abuse or misuse of American power, from a realist perspective, the American stance is more like an abdication and refusal to exercise American power.

Another way to interpret the talks is as an evolving negotiation process in an effort to institutionalize a set of norms and procedures. Certainly this is an avowed hope of American diplomats at the talks although they have not settled on any particular strategy for building a regional security architecture that transcends the North Korea issue should a breakthrough occur.

But how serious is the American intention in this regard? Multilateral negotiations for arms control, trade, and environment over the last four decades, for example, have exhibited four general characteristics:

  1. transactional difficulties arising from increasing the number of players from two to many states which have divergent interests at stake and a-symmetrical capabilities brought to bear on the problem;
  2. the increasing role of non-state actors mobilized by international collective action problems;
  3. a major role for international organizations in structuring the negotiating agenda and facilitating process-determined outcomes; and
  4. the difficulty of sustaining preliminary commitments of states because multilateral negotiations tend to be protracted and outlast changes in leadership or staffing by states.

The six-party talks exhibit none of these characteristics except the first and cannot be regarded as a serious attempt to launch an inclusive security community in East Asia. American officials express hope that China may clarify its international interests as a new player on the global stage and step up to the plate in exerting decisive leverage on North Korea to comply with CVID. While China has indeed "come of age" in modern diplomacy in recent years, Beijing is more likely to view North Korea through the lens of traditional imperial diplomacy by exercising suzerainty aimed at avoiding wars on its borders[1] while keeping South Korea deeply invested in China's own economic transition and political stability. Not surprisingly, North Korea has refused to submit to this implied Chinese hegemony and has refused to accept the legitimacy of its convening role and its intermediary role for passing American "messages." These talks do not appear to be laying the foundation for a new regional security architecture in which all states are heavily vested.

Thus, the talks appear to reflect the triumph of ideology over pragmatism and to be driven by the White House's domestic concerns rather than any regional vision of negotiated détente with North Korea as a precursor to a security community. An authentic commitment to a negotiated solution requires much more time and dialogue than is available in transient diplomatic consultations that amount to muscular diplomacy and face saving meetings hosted by China.

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration is missing the main game in town: the vibrant North Korean economic recovery and the pressure points offered by participating in this irreversible transition. Over time, the leverage over its nuclear program afforded by exploiting North Korea's economic dilemmas will diminish as North Koreans bootstrap their economy and regional powers cut their own deals with the North.

North Korea will likely implement its own version of France's tous azimut or "aimed-in-all-directions" independent nuclear deterrent strategy. It will likely obtain sufficient resources to stabilize a low-level economy that supports the leadership's lifestyle and the system's stability. Regional states will adjust to this reality and the world will become that much more insecure with another nuclear weapons state in a volatile conflict zone involving American forces.

Of course, I pray that America's diplomats will wrestle the North Koreans to the ground in Beijing and that they will agree to CVID on US terms in a miraculous act of nuclear redemption. Unfortunately, hope is a poor basis for securing nuclear non-proliferation in Korea.

President Bush needs to focus on North Korea and take the steps necessary to engage them in any negotiating format-bilateral or multilateral. These are not hard to understand, just different from what he is comfortable with. They are:

  • Step 1: Establish a high-level North Korea policy czar with authority to act on behalf of the president, with direct access to him.
  • Step 2: Declare a detailed US-DPRK roadmap of bilateral obligations
  • Step 3: Initiate a regional security framework based on common security principles and issue a US-DPRK mutual security assurance
  • Step 4: Insist on Immediate DPRK Unilateral Plutonium Re-Freeze, Enrichment Freeze and Declaration, Intrusive Inspections, and Missile Export Moratorium as Precondition for Implementing the Roadmap
  • Step 5: Take the DPRK off the US terrorist list when they roll up their narco-criminal networks
  • Step 6: Put the ROK front-and-center of implementation of the roadmap
  • Step 7: Increase US-ROK military readiness, and negotiate conventional cooperative security agenda with DPRK

[1] Zhang Lidong and Pan Yihe, "The Traditional Chinese Thoughts Resources of International Organization Construction,", in Wang Yizhou, Construction Within Contradiction, Multiple Perspectives on the Relationship between China and International Organizations," China Development Publishing House, Beijing, 2003, p. 273.

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