I've been reading more and more reports indicating that North Korea would be willing to open talks with the U.S., something Trump has expressed a willingness to do as well. South Korean President Moon Jae In has also expressed interest in opening talks.

It's long been my impression that negotiation with North Korea would be unlikely to yield progress considering how long they've been deeply sanctioned, to the extreme suffering of the population, without yielding their nuclear program.

Since they haven't succumbed to sanctions so far, and because of the country's notorious isolation, I find it hard to believe that a deal akin to the Iran nuclear deal -- opening facilities to nuclear inspectors in exchange for lifted sanctions -- would be enough to bring them to the table.

On the other hand, N. Korea doesn't really have much leverage apart from the nuclear threat, and it seems like it would be irrational for them not to try to use that leverage through negotiation.

So my question is: Do foreign policy experts or diplomats take seriously the idea of a productive dialogue between the US and North Korea, and under what kind of conditions would they be likely to suspend their nuclear weapons program?

  • If we invade, and take over or kill off their leadership. They have lied or broken promises so many times anything will fail.
    – cybernard
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 23:24

6 Answers 6


The North Korean govt. is highly unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, since those folks view nuclear deterrent as the guarantor of their regime's survival.

They are eager not to repeat the example of Libya, where Gaddafi gave up his Weapons of Mass Destruction program in exchange for a diplomatic rapprochement (2003), but later faced military action (2011) that toppled his government.

There is no Iran Deal to be had here. NK will retain the capacity to use nuclear weapons on SK for the foreseeable future. But it might be possible to trade economic concessions for partial restrictions on NK's bomb and missile programs.

  • Articles like this one in Huffpo indicate NK's desire to achieve a "peace treaty." Are you saying that such a treaty is unlikely to involve suspending their nuclear weapons program, but maybe their missile program? Commented May 23, 2017 at 3:32
  • The article is about a possible formal peace treaty ending the Korean War. Generally talks have not got very far on that, or prioritized it relative to the nuclear issue. NK doesn't even recognize the Korean War Armistice.
    – Colin
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 6:42
  • You may like to use this reference in your answer too, and stress that Kim Jong-un is behaving in logical (if extreme) ways in order to survive. There's just no evidence, as you say, that the USA will honour any agreement. It'd be insane to actually agree to anything.
    – user8398
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 11:04
  • @inappropriateCode it's not actually clear that the US violated any commitments to Gaddafi
    – Colin
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 14:48
  • @ColinZwanziger According to Ghadafi's son they did promise to protect Libya in exchange for disarmament. It may not have been codified, but that is rarely how business is done with dictators. Page 4 of this source. Ghadafi said in 2010 (page 5) that the failure of the US to deliver on economic and security rewards, as well as just showing Libya a bit more respect "will make it difficult to convince Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear aspirations... the Libyan model is no longer attractive for the latter."
    – user8398
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 15:14

It's quite unlikely that North Korea would agree to suspend their nuclear weapons development. However, they may be willing to scale down or reduce the number of missile tests if concessions are made by the international community.

Below are 2 more feasible negotiation strategies that North Korea is more likely to agree on.

1. Suspending the U.S.-South Korean military exercises

North Korean officials have mentioned that they may "exercise restraint in the testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons if the United States and South Korea adjusted the exercises to make them less threatening".

It is not surprising that North Korean officials both publicly and privately have harped on getting the exercises canceled to create the right atmosphere for renewed diplomatic dialogue.

[ ... ]

So, in November 2016, in private discussions with American experts, including one of the authors, North Korean officials hinted they might be willing to exercise restraint in the testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons if the United States and South Korea adjusted the exercises to make them less threatening. That message was reaffirmed by the Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang’s official mouthpiece, which stated on February 6 that “the Trump Administration should propose the DPRK to adjust military drills in 2017.”

(emphasis mine)

Source: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/02/north-korea-ballistic-missile-test/516537/

Basically, this exercise is named "Foal Eagle" and is conducted annually. The aim, as quoted from the Department of Defense, is:

Conducted as a clear demonstration of the U.S. commitment to the alliance, he said, Foal Eagle 2017 is designed to increase readiness to defend South Korea, to protect the region, and to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula.

While the US insists that the drills were strictly defensive, North Korea have consistently strongly opposed it and issues angry responses and threats every year.

2. Provide North Korea with more economic incentives

William Perry, the Secretary of Defense under the Clinton administration, wrote in an article for Politico that one strategy is to convince the North Korea regime a way of surviving without nuclear weapons. While this won't stop their nuclear weapons programme completely, it may convince them to scale down their efforts.

This can be done, according to him, by cooperating with China as "China is the only nation that can provide powerful economic disincentives for North Korea".

With that understanding, a new negotiating strategy can be employed—one that should allow the North Korean regime to see a way of surviving without nuclear weapons, and that should be backed up by more powerful economic incentives and disincentives than before. Thanks to two new international developments, a strategy like this is now possible—and the North Koreans are more likely to accept.

(emphasis mine)

Source: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/04/north-korea-nuclear-deal-donald-trump-china-215034

It's also worth noting that North Korea did agree to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” in exchange for energy assistance from the other countries. However, due to disagreements relating to verification, North Korea eventually walked out of the agreement.

  • The North Koreans would have to have be pretty stupid to accept a deal with America. I think this answer is idealistic rather than realistic. Consider page 4-5 of this source. The US allegedly promised to protect and reward Libya for disarmament. It never did, and Ghadafi complained in 2010 that the Libyan model is not viable for encouraging Iran or North Korea to give up their aspirations. Why would the North Koreans trust American promises? There's no evidence America would do what they said.
    – user8398
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 15:24

To add to Panda's answer, three scenarios should be considered.

  1. The converse of Panda's answer 2. N. Korea is a beggar nation that cannot feed nor clothe or provide energy to its people. Its chief and primary export is coal (yet they need energy aid). IF this aid was curtailed or shut off, it could provide an incentive for N. Korea to bargain. Currently, China supposedly has stopped coal imports from N. Korea in an arrangement by Trump for the U.S. to provide the coal to China, but this trade curtailment being honored is in question. China fears this scenario would lead to a refugee crisis on N. Korea's northern border.

  2. If N Korea was defeated militarily by the US or an international coalition, similar to the defeat of Germany or Japan was in WW2, they would by necessity be required to negotiate.

  3. If there is a coup that replaces the current regime with something that is more rationale and not based upon threatening the West and its neighbors to feed itself. Many people think this is the most likely scenario. The N Korea military may be fomenting such a strategy according to a study on the party-military relations of the Kim Jong-Un regime, a report commissioned by the S Korean government.

North Korean armed forces may demand for a military-centric government or reshape the current political order if the Kim Jong Un regime is unable to tackle the country’s failing economy, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported, citing a Seoul-commissioned report. Pyongyang has been hit with international sanctions following its nuclear and missile tests in January and February, leading to its crippling economy.

  • Neither Germany nor Japan negociated anything after WWII. Both offered unconditionnal surender.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 12:31

Nuclear talks might become possible with North Korea in the event Kim Jung-un died or was somehow succeeded by a Gorbachev-like successor who wants to come in from the cold, as it were, and does not have the current family legacy to live up to.

Many of North Korea's top officials visit other countries and likely have different ideas about how the country should be run.

  • "who wants to come in from the cold" Like Ghadafi? Also a Gorbachev isn't possible, since the death of Kim Jong-un would be like the death of Stalin. So the successor would likely be more like Khrushchev (at best), and thus it'd be a long time until a Glasnost moment would be viable culturally.
    – user8398
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 15:19

Negotiations don't really seem viable.

Kim Jong-un is batsh$$t crazy and utterly paranoid, any kind of rational negotiations may simply be impossible with him. And we've seen that North Korea isn't likely to abide by anything it agrees to anyway.

China is more interested in North Korea as a buffer between itself and South Korea than it is about any North Korean nukes. They support token sanctions, but immediately start breaking them. North Korea is unlikely to have missed the message that was intended to send.

Russia is Russia. Anything that causes chaos and stretches western resources is something they're going to want to continue.

There's really nobody to negotiate with that you can have any level of trust in.

  • There's no evidence that Kim Jong-un is crazy, and any paranoia is probably accurate. North Korea won't agree to anything because America has gone out of its way to destroy regimes which claimed to have nuclear weapons (Iraq, Libya). There is no evidence they will honour agreements. There's nothing crazy about that assessment, it's logical.
    – user8398
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 11:01

History of North Korea is, in this sense, somehow simple.

NK rulers just want to keep their power, and to do it they have developed a simple way:

  • They threaten the rest of the world with fables and jokes about weapons and earth annihilation
  • The rest of the world give them food, medicines, energy, and so on.

It's more or less the same as when a kid cries and you give him a candy.

You say (emphasis mine):

It's long been my impression that negotiation with North Korea would be unlikely to yield progress considering how long they've been deeply sanctioned, to the extreme suffering of the population, without yielding their nuclear program.

Well, actually the embargo on NK in the previous years did not make suffer the population at all. As you can read on Wikipedia (which cite all the correct sources, so it can be considered a safe source for this) all the embargo have been against weapons stuff and economy factors like gold, rare earth and other things like that. So not only there are no embargo on first necessity items, but as I said NK periodically get a lot of stuff and money from the rest of the world. It's been just the last embargo which has proven a bit too effective (making it difficult to move money in the country and to bring aid 'cause to do it you need a lot of papers now), but generally speaking the embargo never tried to hit the population. Just a few references amongst many others you can find on the web:

Problem with your question, right now, is that as I can't find a single interview where someone clearly talk about their trust in the productivity of the dialog between USA and NK, so it's mostly speculation by my part. It's difficult to know what's in NK rulers mind, too, but at the end of the day I don't see any difference on what is going on now in respect to the last 27 years: NK is terribly in need of aid, and it's doing a lot of noise to gather world attention. Now it all comes down to Kim Jong-un diplomatic skill and/or sanity: if he is smart, with the dialogues and negotiates he can effectively grant its nation a years long streak of free food, free energy, free everything. Instead, if he is a plain madman or he just pushes out too much his luck...well, supposedly not only the dialogues will not last that much, but much probably neither NK itself.

  • 1
    We generally prefer answers which are written from a neutral point of view and avoid speculation. Answers which are mostly personal opinion and speculation usually don't fare that well.
    – Philipp
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 10:54

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