Skip to main content

The price of negotiating with North Korea

By Victor Cha, Ellen Kim and Marie DuMond, Special to CNN
March 2, 2012 -- Updated 1837 GMT (0237 HKT)
It's uncertain how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will work with the international community.
It's uncertain how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will work with the international community.
  • The U.S. and North Korea reach new deal on nuclear moratorium
  • Victor Cha, Ellen Kim and Marie DuMond: We've seen this playbook before
  • The writers say the grim reality is that the deal is a temporary move for North Korea
  • They say Hillary Clinton correctly characterized the deal as a "modest step forward"

Editor's note: Victor Cha is former director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council and author of "The Impossible State: North Korea's Past and Future" (Ecco, April 2012). Ellen Kim is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Marie DuMond is a research associate at the institute.

(CNN) -- Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Following a third exploratory round of bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea held in Beijing last week, Washington looks as though it is walking into yet another goodies-for-nuclear freeze deal with the reclusive North Koreans. The State Department announced Wednesday that the United States would provide food aid to North Korea in return for Pyongyang's promise to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and its plutonium and uranium enrichment activities. North Korea also agreed to allow the return of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify and monitor the moratorium.

Einstein, if he cared about the issue, would probably roll over in his grave. Why are we doing this?

We have seen this playbook several times before in our 25-plus year history of trying to denuclearize North Korea. The United States gets pulled into providing food or energy indefinitely to maintain the nuclear freeze. The North Koreans eventually cheat on the freeze and undertake augmentation of their nuclear weapons at other undisclosed facilities. We stop providing the assistance. A hair-raising crisis ensues that is ultimately resolved through another assistance-for-freeze agreement. Wash, rinse, repeat.

North Korea halts nuclear activities
U.S.: North's actions a positive step
Deal first test of N. Korean leadership
Clinton sees 'modest step forward'

Political types might condemn it as insanity, naiveté or both. But there may be some common-sensical reasons for doing this. Practically speaking, the achievement of a nuclear and missile-testing moratorium, as well as the reintroduction of the U.N. nuclear-watchdog agency inspectors into Yongbyon, is a useful step.

The uranium enrichment program currently meets the definition of a runaway nuclear program. It has gone unabated now for at least five years, if not longer. Getting eyes on the ground again, as in 1994 to 2002 and 2007 to 2008, is a welcome development.

For North Korea, the young Kim Jong Un may want to demonstrate a continuity of leadership after the sudden death of his father nine weeks ago, and the regime wants food in preparation for its April 15 celebrations of the 100th birthday of the first leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung.

However, beyond these tactical solutions are longer-term strategic challenges.

First, North Korea may temporarily halt their program, but the grim reality is that it will not part with it.

Second, the IAEA inspectors will go into the facilities without a supporting U.N. Security Council resolution declaring that the uranium program is in violation of standing denuclearization agreements. (China opposed this.) So while the United States will see this move as monitoring a freeze, North Korea will see it as validating to the international community that it only has peaceful intentions with its uranium program.

Third, it is too soon to tell whether this agreement means the junior Kim is turning over a new leaf and seeking to make nice with the world.

Fourth, the slightest opening up of this brittle dictatorship under the untested son will ensure that it comes crumbling down -- something for which the United States, China and South Korea are wholly unprepared.

Fifth, a nuclear freeze is a long way from the denuclearization objectives sought in the 2005 agreement at the so-called Six-Party Talks. Indeed, one of the unmet U.S. "pre-steps" for returning to the Six-Party Talks was a commitment by the North to refrain from further provocations such as the 2010 submarining of a South Korean navy ship and artillery shelling of a South Korean island. The North made no such commitments outside of a vague reference to supporting the 1953 armistice agreement that ceased Korean War hostilities. Finally, nongovermental and humanitarian groups probably chafe at the explicit linking of food assistance to the nuclear freeze. The United States would claim that the North insisted on the linkage. But it takes two to tango.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton correctly characterized the agreement as a "modest step forward." This may not be insanity, but it is distasteful given the nature of the regime, its human rights violations and its blatant willingness to engage in renegade nuclear activities. Unfortunately, that's the price one pays when negotiating with North Korea.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Victor Cha, Ellen Kim and Marie DuMond.

Part of complete coverage on
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Experts warn that under Kim Jong Un's rule, Pyongyang has shown an even greater willingness to raise the stakes than before.
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
China and North Korea criticize a U.N. report that found crimes against humanity committed in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
March 17, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
Megumi Yokota was only 13 when she was abducted by a North Korean agent in the 1970s. What happened after that?
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Report: North Korea uses multiple techniques to defy sanctions, and shows no signs of abandoning its nuclear missile programs.
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 0817 GMT (1617 HKT)
Families torn apart for more than 60 years -- separated by the Korean War -- began to reunite at a mountain resort in North Korea Thursday.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 1150 GMT (1950 HKT)
A stunning catalog of torture and the widespread abuse of even the weakest of North Koreans reveal a portrait of a brutal state, the UN reported.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 0431 GMT (1231 HKT)
Former prisoners in North Korea describe horrific stories of being tortured by authorities.
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1527 GMT (2327 HKT)
Skiing is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about the isolated nation, but North Korea's ski resort is world class.
February 8, 2014 -- Updated 0315 GMT (1115 HKT)
American Kenneth Bae, who is being held in North Korea, has been moved from a hospital to a labor camp.
January 8, 2014 -- Updated 0213 GMT (1013 HKT)
Why is he being held by North Korea in a prison camp? These are the questions for many since his arrest in the isolated country in 2012.
January 27, 2014 -- Updated 0818 GMT (1618 HKT)
The first time the South Korean factory owner watched his North Korean employees nibble on a Choco Pie, they appeared shocked.
January 8, 2014 -- Updated 0126 GMT (0926 HKT)
Dennis Rodman's "Big Bang in Pyongyang" may be in a league of its own, but other stars too have mixed with repressive regimes before.
December 19, 2013 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman arrives in North Korea to train basketball players, state-run media reports.
December 18, 2013 -- Updated 0250 GMT (1050 HKT)
The nation held a memorial in the honor of former North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il on the second anniversary of his death.
December 13, 2013 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
Days after he was removed from his powerful military post, Jang Song Thaek was called a traitor and executed.