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Ryoo Kil-jae (Professor, University of North Korean Studies) kjstar@kyungnam.ac.kr

On September 21, 2009, President Lee Myung-bak revealed his so-called “Grand Bargain” solution to the North Korean nuclear problem during a program presented by The Korea Society, Asia Society, and the Council on Foreign Relations. This ‘bundled’ solution is focused on North Korea having to first eliminate the most important part of its nuclear weapons development program, its nuclear fuel rods and any processed plutonium, in a manner that can be verified by the international community. If the North shows irreversible actions of this sort, it would be provided with a large-scale aid package.

The government explained that this proposal differs from a ‘package deal’ in which North Korea would gradually be rewarded as it took steps toward denuclarization.1) However, at the end of September, when Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg visited South Korea, he confirmed that the ‘Grand Bargain’ and the U.S.-proposed ‘package deal’ were, in fact, in agreement. This concept was touched on at the June 2009 summit meeting between presidents Lee and Obama, when the two stated that the North Korean nuclear issue should not be approached in a ‘piecemeal’ style. This means that the two will not return to the previous strategy of providing rewards to the North in accordance with each step it took toward denuclearization.2)

Knowing what we know now, it appears that a comprehensive ‘bundled’ deal has the following advantages. First, it can lead to the swift closure of what has become a drawn out nuclear issue.

It can help build trust by bringing about the destruction, or at least non-export, of nuclear materials, and this can touch off a productive cycle of denuclearization negotiations. Secondly, it can shorten the negotiating period. Because it puts the North’s difficult denuclearization decisions first, it could help build domestic political support in participating countries to change position on issues such as Japan’s insistence on including kidnapping issues. Up until now, negotiations have focused on North Korea taking the easy steps first, while the idea of a bundled package calls for the North to move on the difficult issues as simultaneously as possible. This would be great if it could be implemented. The problem lies in the likelihood of the plan’s fruition.

Going back to the introduction of the ‘Grand Bargain’, immediately following a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan on the morning of September 21, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was asked his thoughts on the Grand Bargain and responded, actually, I – to be perfectly honest, I was not aware of that,2 raising doubts as to how much communication was actually taking place between Washington and Seoul. It was even reported that one high-level official in the U.S. government stated that it was unreasonable to think the North Korean nuclear issue could be resolved all at once.3) There was no discussion of the Grand Bargain during the meeting between Clinton and Yu. The South Korean government briefed the U.S. embassy in Seoul about the Grand Bargain on September 17, but it was explained that at the time, Campbell was visiting Japan, and received no report on it. This does little to ease misgivings.

Regardless, it is clear that the U.S. was not sufficiently consulted on the South Korean plan. At the U.S.-ROK summit last June, presidents Lee and Obama definitely exchanged opinions regarding a ‘bundled’ proposal, but Campbell, who is responsible for the U.S. policies on North Korea publicly admitting that he was unaware of the plan means that Seoul and Washington are

not talking on a working level. This, in turn, would indicate that there is no united approach to the North Korean nuclear issues.

Despite the reasonableness of the Grand Bargain, North Korea rejected it.


criticized Seoul, accusing it of merely repackaging the ‘Denuclearization-Development 3000’ policy that had been denounced both domestically and abroad. Pyongyang added, “The nuclear issue on the Chosun Peninsula must be resolved completely between the U.S. and [North Korea].34) With the North taking this stand, it appears unlikely that negotiations can be shifted to talks on central elements of its nuclear program. Even if North Korea agreed to negotiate, if the measures demanded of North Korea are reduced or standards are lowered, it is difficult to see how that would be any different than the previous approach in which the easy steps were taken first. Furthermore, even if the North agreed to eliminate its nuclear materials, if it demands more to give up even 5kg, since it is a core element, the negotiations could stretch on endlessly. Of course, because there are so many variables, it is hard to spell out in simple terms.

However, what is more important is the issue of whether this proposal can be sufficiently developed through U.S.-ROK consultations so that Seoul and Washington can take a unified approach to negotiations with North Korea. The U.S. has regarded North Korea’s position on the implementation of the September 19 Joint Declaration, February 13 Agreement and the October 3 Agreement as somewhat of a willingness to denuclearize. While the previous

administration may not have done much, at least what it managed to accomplish were agreements reached through international six-party talks, which give the Obama administration a head start in resolving these nuclear issues. Therefore, the South Korean government’s reversal of policy can be said to be weakening the U.S. position. On the other hand, the ROK government’s incentive package could drive North Korea to choose not to preemptively denuclearize. Either result would be unacceptable to the U.S.

For South Korea, the North’s nuclear program is not a problem for someone else; it is a direct and lethal threat to South Korean security. While North Korean nuclear issues are important to the U.S., China and others, they cannot do more than South Korea. This is why the South Korean government made efforts to strengthen its voice in discussions on the issues. However, what it got was alienation from the international community and accusations of blowing its own trumpet. The main reasons for South Korea ending up in this position is that North Korea does not recognize Seoul as a negotiating partner when it comes to nuclear issues and South Korea’s lack of diplomatic skill. The country most concerned with the North Korean nuclear issue, and the North Korea issue in general, is South Korea. This is an absolute, as the international community recognizes. Despite this, as more concerned countries become involved, it

becomes less about this fact and more about the abilities of the actors involved.

The South Korean government must also be disappointed by the outcome of the trilateral ROKPRC-Japan summit held in Beijing on October 10. However, with so many countries with a stake in the North Korean nuclear issue, it is necessary to find a solution. It only took the Lee Myung-bak government 20 months to come up with this ‘bundled’ solution to the North’s nuclear issue. The launch of the Obama administration and North Korea’s second nuclear test were also factors, after which the government came up with this unique proposal. However, what action plan would be proposed to carry out such a policy is, as of yet, unknown.

The North Korean nuclear issue is not so simple that any one country can solve, or that can be solved during any single administration. Even the agreements reached through Six-Party Talks were worth less than the paper they were written on before the ink even dried, indicating what a difficult problem is being posed. The U.S. is also working frantically, with talks of bilateral negotiations, the Six-Party Talks, and other means through which it can see to it that its solution

to North Korean nuclear issues is solidified. However, up until now, any action or demand has remained academic, with the U.S. continuing to call only for acknowledgement of existing agreements. Therefore, the South Korean government’s strategy can be a new idea, and in

order to solidify the offer and spell out the details, there needs to be an effort, not only in Seoul, but within the international community, to encourage discourse on this topic.

The North Korean nuclear issue is not something that can be solved all at one time. If all six concerned countries, including North Korea, put their demands on the table and negotiate a solution, then in the long run, these problems be can solved, but this will not be simple. The players have put their vehicles in motion, but their vehicles are not cars, but rather, pawns, and pawns are more deadly than a car could ever be. With the actors proceeding in this manner, mistrust is the word of the day.

There is also another reason that the North Korean nuclear issue has yet to be resolved. North Korea’s obstinacy goes without saying, but there is also difficulty with the other five parties reaching a consensus. This has been obvious in the manner six-party talks have played out. So are the other five parties at a point where they can reach a consensus? Following the North’s second nuclear test, all of the countries are more prone to discuss the agendas of the others.

The U.S. is adhering to a goal of a ‘nuclear-free world’ as its basis for addressing the North Korean nuclear issue, but paradoxically, this is exactly what drives the U.S. to be as flexible as it is with North Korea. This can be seen in the U.S. application of ‘smart power’ through bilateral discussions as it seeks to align the means and the ends.

With North Korea’s second nuclear test, China reaffirmed that its ‘vital interest’ was in ensuring

that the North does not collapse. Engaging Pyongyang is not only a means to prevent collapse, but also a way to ensure one’s own interests are protected as a solution is sought to the nuclear issue. At the same time, Six-Party Talks plays a big role in China’s East Asia diplomacy, and China is working to ensure their success.

Despite the transfer of power in Japan, domestic politics remain important, and it does not appear yet that Prime Minister Hatoyama is pursuing an ‘East Asian Community’. The current administration does not appear to be doing anything different than previous leadership regarding the kidnapping issue. Despite claims by concerned countries over the importance of resolving North Korean nuclear issues, they are more interested in using the problems to pursue national interests.

There is at least one common thread running through this. That is that the U.S. and China both are calling for international cooperation to better the common good of all nations. China’s ‘soft power’ diplomacy and the U.S. ‘smart power’ diplomacy seem to be working together. Recently, with the U.S. stressing the G2 and Chinese participation, the two countries’ cooperation have even given rise to the term ‘Chimerica’. South Korea needs to secure its place in negotiations despite the overbearing Chinese and U.S. positions. The Grand Bargain may serve as a tool to not only solve the North Korean nuclear issue, but also increase South Korea’s security and diplomatic presence, as well.

1) Chosun Ilbo, Sept. 22, 2009, p. 5. 2) Joongang Ilbo, Oct. 1, 2009, p. 10. 3) Yonhap News (http://yonhapnews.co.kr), Sept. 23, 2009. 4) Hankook Ilbo, Oct. 1, 2009, p. 1.

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