Negotiating with North Korea: Balancing the carrot and the stick

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”


April brought the following headlines regarding the U.S.-North Korea standoff on nuclear weapons: 

• “Kim Says North Korea Needs No More Nuclear or Long-Range Missile Tests”

• “North Korea’s Kim Promised to Open Dismantling of Nuclear Site to Outside World”

• “Kim Says He’d End North Korea Nuclear Pursuit for U.S. Truce”


• “Kim and Moon Vow to Forge Official End to War”

As the world awaited the upcoming nuclear summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, scheduled June 12 in Singapore, the latest news bulletins provided a welcome relief from what had been extraordinarily hostile broadsides exchanged between the two leaders over the past year. Last month, Trump went so far as to call “Rocket Man” “very honorable,” an amazing about face even by Trump standards.

Despite Kim suddenly threatening this week to cancel the talks due to joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises being conducted on the peninsula, the summit is likely to go forward.

So what should we make of all this?

In international relations, there is a long-standing tenet that good diplomacy generally requires a delicate balance of carrots and sticks. That is, in bargaining situations in which one is trying to influence the behavior of an opponent in order to achieve certain goals, the best strategy is usually to combine promises (the offer of rewards for cooperation) with threats (the specter of punishment for noncooperation). 

In other words, what usually works is some mix of tough love. As Al Capone reputedly said, “You will get further with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word.” Teddy Roosevelt put it more diplomatically: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Getting the mix right is easier said than done. Too tough, and you may provoke or prolong the very hostility you are attempting to curb. Too soft, and you may project weakness and invite your adversary to take advantage of you.

John Bolton tends to tilt the game toward an excess of hawkishness. About President Trump’s new national security adviser, Walter Russell Mead (Wall Street Journal, March 27) wrote that many observers are worried that Bolton’s appointment means “we are moving toward war with North Korea.” Of course, many said the same about “Rambo” Reagan,  that his saber rattling would lead to World War III, and all he did was end the Cold War.  

At the other extreme is a Jimmy Carter, whose presidency at times bordered on pacifism, although he successfully concluded the Camp David agreement that produced peace between Israel and Egypt. President Barack Obama, who tended to err on the side of dovishness, largely failed at foreign policy. As Harvard historian Niall Ferguson commented in Newsweek in September 2012, “Machiavelli said it is ‘safer to be feared than loved.’ Today, America is neither.”

The policy of “strategic patience” adopted by Obama’s administration, following in the footsteps of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, failed to stop North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. It is now suspected of having at least 10 nuclear warheads that can be mounted on ICBMs capable of possibly reaching as far as St. Louis. 

Trump might rightly claim it is precisely his demonstrating impatience over North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program, including his bellicose rhetoric and tightening economic sanctions against Pyongyang, that has pressured Kim to come to the table to talk about possible “denuclearization.” 

The prospect of getting North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program remains a long shot, but stranger things have happened in my lifetime (such as the Cold War and the Soviet Union ending without a shot being fired).

So how should the United States approach bargaining with North Korea? How should we play our hand if we have any hope of winning the game? Assume for purposes of discussion that Trump, Bolton and Co. are capable of nuanced, professional diplomacy.

First, as the late Roger Fisher of the Harvard Law School, an expert on international negotiation, once wrote, make sure you know what your main objective is, and make it easy, not hard, for the other side to say yes to what you hope to achieve. 

In this case, our goal clearly is to persuade North Korea to terminate its nuclear weapons program. We might be willing to accept a freeze, but that would be a secondary, much less valued goal, because the very existence of the program poses an existential threat to the United States, given Pyongyang’s ties to terrorists and its willingness to sell weapons as if they were foodstuffs.

On the “love” side of the equation, we should offer as many goodies as we possibly can. This means ending existing U.N.-authorized economic sanctions as well as forgoing additional sanctions we have been calling for, not only involving caviar and luxury goods desired by the North Korean elites but access to financial markets, hard currency and technology critical to economic development. 

We have to coordinate with China, because North Korea has been heavily dependent on coal exports to China for foreign currency earnings, oil imports from China for 90 percent of its oil needs and the import of 500,000 tons of grain annually to feed its people.   

We must also provide security guarantees that we will not invade North Korea and will not seek regime change. We should also offer to reduce our military presence in South Korea, with the approval of the Seoul government. Even if we were to withdraw completely, we could redeploy fairly quickly if we had to. And, yes, we might well agree to a truce formally ending the Korean War.  

Just as it will be a challenge to get North Korea to accept the credibility of any such American guarantees, given the U.S. invasion of a WMD-less Iraq and Libya, it will likewise be a challenge for the United States to obtain an adequate inspection regime that can verify North Korean nuclear disarmament, given the difficulty of accounting for all nuclear material and their location.

On the “tough” side of the equation, the United States should gently but firmly warn North Korea, along with China, that if  our proposal is rejected, we will build up missile defenses in Asia and, as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently suggested, will shoot down “anything we think looks like a launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile” from North Korea. We should threaten to tighten the economic noose further, going after banks and companies that do business with North Korea. Rather than help legitimize the Pyongyang regime, we should be prepared to increase its isolation internationally.

If all else fails, we can send Dennis Rodman.

Seriously, the stakes could not be higher. We do not want to come home empty-handed, but we also do not want a repeat of a  1994 agreement in which we promised North Korea nuclear energy reactors and fuel supplies in exchange for their ending their production of weapons-grade material, only to see them renege on the understandings as they engaged in uranium enrichment. 

If Trump were miraculously to bring this deal off, the Nobel Peace Prize should be his, with Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in possibly sharing it. (Never-Trumpers might want to award it just to Kim and Moon or China’s Xi Jinping rather than the Donald.) 

If Trump is unsuccessful, we are at grave risk. We should all be rooting for him.