The Sequel’s Not Any Better: Why the US Should Be Wary of Pyongyang’s Shift in Rhetoric

Let’s start this post off with a pop culture confession: I didn’t like  The Hangover. I realize that this probably puts me in the minority of the American movie-going public (the film earned nearly a half-billion dollars at the box office, making it the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all-time), but I found it to be a bit too crass and a bit too formulaic for my taste.

And yet, when The Hangover Part II rolled into theaters a couple years later, I succumbed to some intense peer pressure and decided to give the franchise another chance, hoping that the sequel might improve upon its predecessor’s flaws. Unsurprisingly, my hopes were dashed – Part II’s change in setting (shifting the debauchery from the original’s Las Vegas to the seedy streets of Bangkok) failed to mask the reality that the sequel represented little more than a plot point-by-plot point retread of the original. Ultimately, I left the theater feeling that I had essentially seen the same movie twice. So, when the inevitable The Hangover Part III came out this past May, I resolved to steer clear – I wasn’t going to get burned again.

I bring this up not simply to take potshots at the Hangover franchise (that’s a different post for a different blog), but rather to frame my reaction to recent reports about the North Korean government expressing support for the resumption of Six-Party nuclear talks. Namely, I think we should be quite skeptical about this news being indicative of any substantive shift in North Korean policy – remember, we’ve seen this movie (actually many, many versions of it) before.

This new development in the North Korean nuclear saga came during a recent visit to Pyongyang by Chinese vice president Li Yuanchao. The ostensible reason for the visit was to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1953 Korean War armistice, but much of the dialogue between Li and Kim Jong-un focused on the nuclear issue, with Li’s published comments reiterating Beijing’s commitment to realizing a peaceful, stable, and denuclearized Korean peninsula. According to the PRC’s Xinhua News Agency, Kim responded to Li by expressing his support for Chinese efforts to restart the Six-Party talks, which have lain dormant since 2009.

Now, Kim’s apparent support for the resumption of Six-Party talks is certainly not a bad thing, and is a testament to the pressure China has been putting on North Korea to moderate its behavior. After all, a few months ago, Pyongyang was engaging in all sorts of provocative behavior on the Korean peninsula, including, but not limited to: detonating a nuclear weapon; test-launching missiles; withdrawing from the 1953 armistice; and drawing up dubious plans to strike US targets in Hawaii, California, and, for some reason, Austin, Texas. When compared to such belligerent actions, North Korea’s newfound conciliatory stance is a welcome change.

However, Kim’s support for restarting the Six-Party talks does little to indicate that Pyongyang is sincerely interested in meaningful negotiations about its nuclear program. As I wrote back in June, North Korea’s diplomatic posture tends to follow a cycle of provocative behavior, followed by a dialing-down of tensions and perhaps even some negotiating progress, followed by resumed provocations.

This frustrating pattern was most recently on display in a period spanning from early 2010 to early 2012. In a span of roughly two years, North Korea: (1) Sank a South Korean naval vessel and launched an artillery strike on a South Korean island; (2) Rehabilitated its image enough to pave the way for the “Leap Day Agreement” with the United States, which promised a resumption of US food aid, in exchange for Pyongyang agreeing to halt uranium enrichment and the testing of missiles and nuclear weapons; (3) Proceeded to blow up (pun absolutely intended) the Leap Day Agreement by carrying out a rocket test. Nor was Pyongyang’s disregard for the Leap Day Agreement a historical anomaly – North Korea has similarly reneged on its commitments to the 1994 Agreed Framework, the NPT, and the 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement.

Given its track record, then, there is very little reason to believe that the recent softening of Pyongyang’s diplomatic posture represents a departure from the provocation-détente-provocation cycle outlined above. The US government appears to share this view – in response to similar North Korean overtures in June, American officials expressed a reluctance to engage in “talks for talks’ sake,” and a National Security Council spokeswoman insisted that “credible negotiations” would have to form the basis of any future US-North Korea engagement.

So, until North Korea is able to enhance the credibility of its professed commitment to resuming meaningful negotiations, the US is likely to resist any further engagement with Pyongyang. Of course, diplomacy is a two-way street, and the US does not lay entirely blameless for the stagnation of talks with North Korea. As the Center’s own Lt. General Robert Gard detailed back in 2011, the US has damaged negotiations in the past by failing to fulfill promised commitments in a timely fashion, and by periodically rejecting serious diplomatic advances from the Kim regime. Moreover, the repeated US insistence that North Korea denuclearize as a precondition for further negotiations is extremely counter-productive – one need not be an experienced negotiator to know that making the desired result of negotiations a preconditions for said talks is not a recipe for success.

Ultimately, I am not trying to argue that the US should turn its back on North Korea and disregard all future diplomatic overtures from Pyongyang. After all, the only viable way through which tensions on the Korean peninsula can be resolved is through the diplomatic process, and so the US cannot afford to abandon these efforts. Moreover, as indicated above, there are steps that the US could take to make future negotiations with Pyongyang more fruitful. Nonetheless, in light of North Korea’s repeated violations of previous disarmament agreements, Washington must guard against plunging into talks with Pyongyang, only to have the resulting agreement flippantly discarded by the Kim regime. The US has seen that movie before.