North Korea: Got a Better Idea?

This post by Sam Roggeveen originally appeared on The Interpreter.

The big diplomatic news of the day is that North Korea has handed over a partial accounting of its nuclear program, and in return the US will remove North Korea from its sponsors of terrorism list and ease sanctions. Those who support this move call it ‘huge news…and…a giant step in putting US-North Korea relations on a new and more constructive track.’

But it’s worth reading some of the critics too, in order to get a picture of just how much is missing from the deal and how much work is left to fully denuclearise North Korea. Clearly this is an imperfect agreement, and perhaps the US has given away too much in exchange for uncertain gains. North Korea, after all, has a history of reneging on these deals.

But what I’m not seeing from the critics is a plausible alternative plan. Nobody is suggesting military action to disarm North Korea, because given the geography, Pyongyang effectively holds the city of Seoul hostage. Isolating the regime also seems to have done very little good.

And what harm can be done by this approach? Yes, North Korea gains economic aid and a sense of legitimacy from being brought out of its pariah status, but those are favours that can easily be stopped or revoked.

To paint these negotiations as if the US is being held over a barrel by the crafty Stalinists in Pyongyang is at best a partial reading. The US and its negotiating partners have a lot of what North Korea wants — wealth. That remains an important point of leverage.