National Security & Defense

What It’s Like to Talk with North Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un share a toast at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas on April 27, 2018. (Pool via Reuters)
A veteran of American negotiations with Pyongyang sees ‘our best opportunity in the past 17 years’ for a breakthrough.

Friday morning brought the surprising sight of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, shaking hands and literally embracing. The two leaders announced their intent to find an agreement to remove all nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula and, within the year, pursue talks with the United States to declare an official end to the Korean War.

Suddenly, the upcoming summit meeting between President Trump and Kim seems much more likely to bear fruit, and a genuine thaw in U.S.–North Korean relations seems possible. But few regimes in the world are less predictable and less understood than the one in Pyongyang, and Kim is young, largely unknown, erratic, and ruthless.

Few Americans have more experience in interacting with the North Koreans than Robert Carlin, currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. From 1971 to 1989, Carlin was an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. Then he moved to the U.S. State Department, taking part in all negotiations with the North Koreans during the Clinton presidency. During the Bush administration, he became a senior policy advisor to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, the international group that implemented the 1994 nuclear deal Clinton struck with Pyongyang. Altogether, Carlin has made 25 trips to North Korea, and he’s among the few outsiders who have ever visited sites like North Korea’s uranium-enrichment plant in Yongbyon.

Carlin generally likes what he’s seen of the administration’s preparations for a Kim–Trump summit. He’s particularly happy that then-CIA director Mike Pompeo was dispatched to meet with Kim this past Easter weekend.

“We’re much better off than we were at the beginning of the year, when no one we knew or trusted had direct experience with Kim Jong-un,” Carlin says. “We were trapped in our own bubble of ignorance. Now several people have met with Kim, and the president will have the benefit of first-hand observations on the North Korean leader.”

While it’s not necessarily easy to measure the impact of economic sanctions on North Korea, Carlin believes it’s now obvious that the economy is on Kim’s mind.

The U.S. government has never had a formal diplomatic relationship with North Korea and still technically recognizes the South Korean government as the sole legitimate regime on the peninsula. Neither country has an embassy or ambassador to the other; when the two governments need to talk, they do so through North Korea’s United Nations consulate, or pass a message through Sweden’s two-man embassy in Pyongyang. North Korea is exceptionally difficult to penetrate and infiltrate through traditional espionage methods, and Western intelligence agencies often must rely on defectors for reliable information about the state of the country’s military and nuclear capabilities.

While the North Korean regime is unpredictable and has broken promises before, certain pledges are easy to verify, such as the lack of test-launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear tests — leaving at least two fewer preconditions to be met or issues to be negotiated. (This week brought reports that “the mountain above North Korea’s main nuclear test site has likely collapsed, rendering it unsafe for further testing and requiring that it be monitored for any leaking radiation.”)

While it’s not necessarily easy to measure the impact of economic sanctions on North Korea, Carlin believes it’s now obvious that the economy is on Kim’s mind.

“Kim made crystal clear in the recent party plenum that his focus is on the [North Korean] economy,” he says. “His position at the talks is very likely to be built around economic concerns. Kim is coming to the table having shown he is thinking big, that he has new strategic concepts in his briefcase, and can move deftly.”

Carlin describes North Korea’s negotiators as tough but careful.

“They are good at their game. . . . When they get precise in their presentation, it’s important to pay attention — they mean what they say,” he says. “But it’s often only possible to understand what they mean by having a good grasp of their previous positions. . . . My experience is that Americans sometimes don’t recognize progress when they see it from the North Koreans, and thus may miss openings.”

Carlin warns that the North Koreans will be alert for any slight or suggestion of disrespect: “When what we are asking for flows from our sense of moral superiority rather than any pragmatic or rational basis, the North Koreans can sense it. They have good emotional radars and know when we are being condescending, speaking down to them.”

Enacting a policy of “trust but verify” on North Korea’s nuclear program may not be so difficult as some expect, Carlin thinks, although he warns that no verification program can be guaranteed to detect cheating. The United States has considerable “national technical means of verification,” which usually include satellite monitoring, telemetry intelligence, and seismic and acoustic measurements to detect underground testing. (North Korea put extensive resources into building underground facilities, obscured from the watchful eyes of the satellites.)

But a big question will be outside inspectors’ access to North Korean nuclear sites.

“From 1995 to 2002, we and the [International Atomic Energy Agency] had inspectors and technicians in the Yongbyon nuclear center with very good, though not total, access,” Carlin says.

Back in 2003, a year after North Korea kicked out the IAEA inspectors, Yousry Abushady, the head of the inspection team, said that his teams were treated with respect and never feared for their safety in almost a decade of work. They would visit more than one facility per day, with North Korean authorities notified the night before, but they would also conduct surprise inspections with only an hour’s warning.

Carlin thinks that Pyongyang may be amenable to an initially limited reinstatement of inspections.

“If we overreach, however, the North will dig in its heels,” he says. “Their position has always been that they are not a conquered country, and we cannot go wherever we like, whenever we like.” He also cautions that no verification regime can eliminate 100 percent of the risk, and that inspection agreements usually work best when cooperation and trust is gradually built up over time.

What will happen if and when Trump meets Kim is one of the great unknowns of 2018. At first glance, this an exceptionally unlikely time for a high-stakes summit: The president just changed his secretary of state and national security adviser, and he hasn’t nominated an ambassador to South Korea yet. By contrast, the first summit between President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev featured preparations that seem unimaginable for the current president. Historian William Taubman describes them in his book Gorbachev: His Life and Times:

Beginning in the previous summer, Matlock and others put him through “the equivalent of a college course,” including more than 20 papers followed by discussions with their authors, meetings with other academics from outside the bureaucracy, and video presentations put together by the CIA from broadcast material. At one point, Matlock recalls, “we could get two or three two-hour sessions with him a week! Try to get 15 minutes with any other president.”

But Carlin points out that history proves even the best-prepared presidents can walk away empty-handed from the negotiation table when it comes to the Koreas.

“Jimmy Carter had a terrible meeting with the [South Korean] leader in 1979, regardless of how much his very experienced team had tried to prepare him,” Carlin says. Carter had wanted to reduce the U.S. troop presence in South Korea, and South Korean president Park Chung-hee vehemently opposed the move. During a meeting in Seoul, Park brusquely told Carter so, in a lecture that left the American president furious. Carter ended up wagging his finger and berating his own ambassador, William Gleysteen, in his limousine after the meeting.

“The importance of preparation may come not in the few hours of the talks themselves, but in the aftermath,” Carlin said. “It’s then people will evaluate what happened based not on top-of-the-head judgments, but real understanding of what the other side said, and what it meant.”

North Korea represented the most menacing and frightening foreign-policy challenge of President Trump’s first year. Now, in a striking turn of events, the country may represent the biggest foreign-policy opportunity of his second year. But negotiating an end to the country’s nuclear program, and ensuring that what’s promised at the summit table is actually enacted in reality, will be painstaking work.

“If we leave gaps, we can be sure they will explore them. If there are seams, they will play them. If they are uncertain about our own commitment, they will pursue hedging,” Carlin says. But he remains optimistic all the same.

“This looks to be our best opportunity in the past 17 years. Unfortunately, it comes after our own position has weakened considerably while that of the North Koreans has strengthened.”

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