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The futile pursuit of North Korea's 'golden concession'

Evergreen strategy rests on a fatally flawed premise

| North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, pictured on Jan.14: we know what North Korea wants because it told us.   © KCNA/Reuters

Anthony W. Holmes was special adviser for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2017-2021. During that time, Holmes led the Department of Defense team designing the Maximum Pressure Campaign and was one of only two DOD representatives at the inaugural U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore.

The dawn of a new U.S. administration begins a ritual known as the North Korea policy review wherein U.S. policy toward the Hermit Kingdom is decided. This process is underway in the Biden Administration. I know this effort well because in January 2017 I led the huge Department of Defense team drafting core components of what became the Maximum Pressure Campaign.

It is critical that the Biden Administration ignore a dangerous urge: the pursuit of what I call the "golden concession." Over the last three decades, North Korea has convinced the world to offer it unilateral, unreciprocated, upfront concessions before the regime itself does anything to earn them.

Advocates of this approach say we should try to induce, rather than reward, good North Korea's behavior. Although proven time and again that this approach is foolish, articles advocating the golden concession reappear like clockwork every time North Korea enters the news.

The basic argument goes like this: North Korea is an isolated and frightened state locked in an existential crisis because the United States is itching to invade, and it knows deep down South Korea will eventually absorb it. North Korea does not trust the outside world, and as its apologists argue, is right not to. Therefore it is up to the United States and South Korea to "prove" to North Korea that they are not threats.

In fact, advocates of the golden concession place practically no burden on North Korea to prove its good faith. For them, just being willing to talk is proof of North Korea's desire to change. It goes without saying that these advocates conclude that North Korea's nuclear program is purely a deterrent and would never be used as a tool of coercive diplomacy.

The golden concession strategy rests on a fatally flawed premise: in North Korea versus the world, the world is at fault. "When did we decide," a frustrated Japanese diplomat once asked me, "that everyone was responsible for improving North Korea but North Korea?"

Nonetheless, the argument survives because of two rhetorical advantages: First, it is immune from serious debate. Challenging the one-sidedness of this approach quickly earns you accusations of wanting war in the Korean Peninsula and being transactional because you expect something from the other side.

Its second and strongest advantage is that it is unfalsifiable. Since the nuclear program arose, the United States and others have offered North Korea everything it publicly says it wants, or advocates have assured us North Korea secretly wants but is too proud to ask, to no avail. In retort, golden concessionists say that we just have not offered enough.

North Korea obviously takes advantage of this, praising the strategy in propaganda and private statements. Pyongyang nurtures this strategy to reap the benefits of its interlocutors negotiating with themselves over what gifts to offer it. It then pockets these gains, sets them as the floor in future negotiations, and hints that next time might be different.

This is why the South Korean administration acted immediately to stop North Korea defector and human rights groups from sending balloons into North Korea carrying information, food and medicine while also arresting defectors after North Korea demanded it. This is why Russia, China and others keep pushing for sanctions relief for North Korea even though Beijing and Moscow acknowledge North Korea has not lived up to its obligations.

North Korean defectors prepare to release balloons carrying leaflets and a banner condemning Kim Jong Un in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, in April 2016.   © AP

The truth is we know what North Korea wants because it told us. I heard it myself. U.S. forces out of South Korea and recognition of North Korea sovereignty over the Peninsula. This is how Pyongyang defines the end of war and what it means when it calls for an end to the U.S. "hostile policy." To paraphrase B.R. Myers, an academic expert on North Korean propaganda, North Korea has clearly told us what it wants; we just pretend it wants something else.

In the book Diplomacy, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted that it is a "classically American gesture" to encourage negotiations by offering unilateral gestures of goodwill, but this has the perverse effect of removing the adversary's incentive to negotiate and instead wait to see what gifts come next.

True to form, golden concessionists now say we should try to reach a realistic diplomatic outcome with North Korea: de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state, sanctions relief and negotiating an arms control agreement. Of course, offering North Korea practically everything it wants before expecting anything substantive in return is a realistic diplomatic outcome.

The regime must be salivating over this because it knows the world can never take this back. So when it violates this agreement like it has every other, advocates will say it just was not enough, and we must renew the search for the elusive golden concession.

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