On September 21, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak proposed a “grand bargain” with North Korea. Tired of counterproductive step-by-step negotiations with Pyongyang, Lee’s deal was a one-shot process: complete and irreversible denuclearization in exchange for security guarantees and economic aid.
On September 30, the North responded to the offer, calling it “ridiculous.” Given this response, we should not expect a similar American proposal. Or should we?
The Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter believes we should, and his reasoning is clever. In a September 30 briefing, Carpenter and Doug Bandow argued that while there are no good options, the best chance of persuading North Korea to adopt policies acceptable to the United States (i.e. denuclearization) is through coordinated effort with China.
Carpenter proposed that the United States offer its own one-shot grand bargain not as a diplomatic end-game with North Korea, but as a shrewd gambit to persuade Beijing to get tough with Pyongyang. (It’s worth noting that Carpenter is fond of the grand bargain concept; he has proposed a similar approach for dealing with Iran). Carpenter referred to the strategy as “smoking North Korea out,” by which he means forcing North Korea’s hand and making them reveal their true intentions to the United States and, more importantly, to China.
It is unclear whether or not Pyongyang is truly considering denuclearization, though it has pledged to work for a nuclear-weapons-free peninsula. This uncertainty (or hope) is enough to prevent China from confronting North Korea; after all, China has some legitimate concerns that include North Korean destabilization leading to a chaotic refugee flow and the potential geopolitical threat from a united Korea. China also knows, however, that an established nuclear weapon power on the peninsula is not in its interests.
Carpenter’s presentation suggested that he does not expect Pyongyang to accept the grand bargain, which would include a non-aggression pact and economic aid in return for denuclearization. For Carpenter, Pyongyang’s rejection of the deal would clarify their intentions and reveal their determination to become an established nuclear weapon power. In such a situation, China would be left with no choice but to bring out its stick.
One problem, however, is that such diplomatic litmus tests tend to be of questionable utility, particularly when it comes to North Korea. Carpenter said that rejection of the grand bargain would mean North Korea had determined to go nuclear, but this assumes Pyongyang: a) knows what it wants; b) has decided upon a course of action that will get it what it wants; and c) attributes as much importance to the grand bargain offer as Carpenter does. As Travis ranted awhile ago, imperfect information makes conjectures about North Korean intentions suspect by default.
Another potential problem in Carpenter’s approach is that if the United States expects the grand bargain to fail, it might act accordingly. This pitfall has been prevalent in U.S. policy toward Iran. Skeptical that negotiations will bear fruit, a few Obama administration officials reportedly believe that direct talks with Iran are important mainly because they provide political cover for more coercive actions down the road. If articulated publicly – like when placating congressional hawks with tough talk on Iran, for example – such sentiments not only cause Iranian leaders to doubt American sincerity, but also assume future coercive steps to be a foregone conclusion. Such assumptions could quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies in both Iran and North Korea.
Implementing Carpenter’s strategy becomes dangerous if it succeeds when we do not expect (or want) it to. Chester Crocker explained this type of scenario a few weeks ago in the New York Times: “If we succeed in changing the position of the other country’s decision-makers, we then must decide whether we will take yes for an answer and reciprocate their moves with steps of our own.” Carpenter’s strategy is crafty, but it would be imprudent unless we were actually serious about following through.
Carpenter also appraised U.S. diplomacy vis-à-vis Pyongyang’s two nuclear tests. He concluded that it was a mistake by both the Bush and Obama administrations to issue immediate public statements after both tests pledging full nuclear umbrella protection for South Korea and Japan. If it were up to Carpenter, the United States would have issued private statements of assurance to South Korea and Japan but kept China guessing about the U.S. level of commitment to these two countries. If this had occurred, China might more earnestly fear the proliferation implications of Pyongyang’s tests, and the possibility of South Korea and Japan pursuing the bomb would have been an alarming consideration. This could have been a critical impetus for China to get tough on North Korea.