Insights and Analysis

Prospects for U.S.-North Korea Bilateral Relations

July 25, 2007

By Scott Snyder

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill’s sudden visit to Pyongyang in late June and renewed implementation of the February 13, 2007 agreement among the six parties has stimulated speculation about how far and how fast North Korea and the United States can go toward a “big deal” involving North Korea’s denuclearization in return for the diplomatic normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations. Despite rumors in Beijing of a U.S.-DPRK “secret channel” following Hill’s visit, the broad outlines of such a U.S.-DPRK trade-off were agreed to long ago as part of the September 19, 2005, Six Party Joint Statement.

The Joint Statement clearly commits the United States to normalize diplomatic relations with North Korea in line with the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The “big deal” has already been made; whether or not both sides can accept the political and strategic implications of such a deal in reality remains to be seen. The major question now is whether the two sides can find ways to actually live up to their promises by moving forward and solving thousands of small problems on the road to achieving the final objectives of the Joint Statement.

As both the United States and the DPRK embark once again on a performance-based set of simultaneous actions designed to overcome deeply entrenched mutual distrust under the “action-for-action” formula, questions of verification and irreversibility will come to the fore. Even the remaining steps under the February 13th agreement are fraught with potential doubts and differences between the United States and the DPRK over American delisting of North Korea from the terrorist list and repeal of the Trading With the Enemy Act, while Americans will scrutinize North Korea’s declaration and assess the extent to which the disablement measures to scrap North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor are irreversible. Not to mention North Korean negotiator Kim Kye-gwan’s renewed demands for light water reactors prior to the North’s completion of denuclearization as the talks ended last week in Beijing.

The impact of two tactical changes in the dynamics of implementation of the February 13th agreement deserves special scrutiny. First, Chinese observers are already sensitive to the implications of U.S.-DPRK direct talks, unmediated by officials in Beijing. But unlike a decade ago, bilateral U.S.-DPRK talks no longer seem so sensitive in Seoul.

Chris Hill’s visit to Pyongyang appears to have caught Chinese analysts off-guard, despite the fact that Hill was essentially taking years of advice of Chinese officials by dealing with the North Koreans directly (under the umbrella of the six party talks.) North Korea has made clear that it puts high priority on U.S.-DPRK bilateral discussions, including the DPRK’s latest proposal for bilateral military talks, but the United States will continue to prefer addressing most issues with the DPRK as part of the six party process.

Second, the United States has shown a willingness to take some actions first in an attempt to draw out reciprocal actions by the DPRK under the “action-for-action” framework. Even though it was not mentioned in the February 13th agreement, for instance, the United States went first by resolving the Banco Delta Asia issue to North Korea’s satisfaction, even though it delayed implementation of the February 13 th agreement for several months.

Such an approach by the United States might have seemed politically risky in the past because it appears to trust the DPRK not to pocket concessions, but Chris Hill may feel that such an approach is the best way of putting the onus for concrete steps onto North Korea to the extent possible by upping expectations (and pressure) among the other four parties by keeping the ball in North Korea’s court. This approach would be designed to force a more rapid pace of implementation by avoiding North Korean complaints about American foot-dragging, while also limiting North Korean capacity to string the U.S. along by forcing an early test of North Korea’s performance.

Another issue that has received a great deal of attention in South Korea is the question of changing the armistice into a permanent peace mechanism, a process that would presumably diminish or permanently end American responsibilities related to inter-Korean border control or conventional military deterrence. But the DPRK still wants to deal with the United States on security issues, despite the fact that the U.S. role is diminishing and the task of managing the border would be dealt with between the two Koreas directly. The task of achieving conventional security reductions becomes the most pressing issue between the two Koreas, one that would need to be addressed as part of the agenda for a second inter-Korean summit following the irreversible disablement of North Korea’s Yongbyun facilities. Whether the task of safeguarding security on the Korean peninsula can be easily transferred to the inter-Korean channel will be a welcome indicator that conditions of peaceful co-existence are being achieved.

Scott Snyder is a Senior Associate at The Asia Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Korea
Related topics: North Korea


About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

InAsia is posted and distributed every other Wednesday evening, Pacific Time. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].


For questions about InAsia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].

The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

Mailing Address:
PO Box 193223
San Francisco, CA 94119-3223