To Clear Away the Myths about “North Korea” That Have Grown Up Over the Past

To clear away the myths that have grown up over the past 13 years about what is possible in terms of dealing with the North

[Interview] US expert questions ‘provocation-negotiation-reward’ cycle of N. Korea

Robert Carlin was involved in US government’s North Korea intelligence throughout the 1990s



Both the South Korean and US governments have pointed out a cycle of ‘provocation-negotiation-reward’ as the main reason for rejecting talks with North Korea. This means that North Korea extracts whatever benefits it can from South Korea and the US, then does not honor the commitments it made during the negotiation. However, Robert Carlin, who is currently a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, makes a different suggestion. 

Carlin received his M.A. in East Asian regional studies from Harvard University in 1971 and joined Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1974, where he became a North Korea analyst. From 1989 until 2002, he was chief of the Northeast Asia Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State. During much of that period, he also served as Senior Policy Advisor to the Special Ambassador for talks with North Korea. Then, Carlin served as senior policy advisor at the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) between 2002 and 2006. The Hankyoreh’s Washington correspondent carried out three e-mail interviews about the recent publication of a revised edition of The Two Koreas.

Hani: North Korea’s uranium enrichment program has been considered a major factor to exacerbate the U.S.-North Korean relationship since 2002. You mentioned in your book, “Midlevel officials in the State Department were already devising a strategy to address that problem with the North once the intelligence community gave the okay to raise the issue in the diplomatic arena.” Do you think the U.S. could resolve the uranium enrichment program at that time if the necons didn’t change the existing policy toward North Korea?

Then-US President Bill Clinton shakes hands with North Korea Special Envoy Cho Myong-rok, first Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission, at the Oval Office in Washington D.C., Oct. 10, 2000. (AP/Yonhap News)


Carlin: Dealing with counterfactual history is usually dangerous, and almost always an intellectual trap. All I can do is lay out the positive elements that existed in January 2001 and that, it seemed to me, formed the foundation for eventually moving into talks with Pyongyang on both the missile and the highly enriched uranium (HEU) issues. Secretary of State Albright had visited Pyongyang and held hours of discussions with Kim Jong Il in October. DPRK Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok had visited Washington weeks before that bearing a letter from Kim Jong Il for President Clinton. KEDO was functioning well and moving beyond its previous focus on building infrastructure at the site to real progress on the first of the two planned light water reactors at Kumho. Crucially, Kim Jong Il was already beginning to put in place elements of his economic reform package that would begin in July 2002. Finally, and very important, North-South dialogue was picking up speed following the June 15 summit.

In those circumstances, it seems to me, there was considerable room for us to raise the HEU problem in ways that would keep the Agreed Framework process overall moving ahead. What we had learned after nearly 8 years of negotiating on various issues was that progress in one area was helpful getting the dialogue over tough spots in other areas. No doubt negotiations on HEU would have been difficult, no doubt opponents of the Agreed Framework (and these were not just neocons) would have insisted that the discovery of the North’s move onto the HEU route was a violation of the Agreed Framework. Nevertheless, based on our experience the developments I just mentioned, I think we had a good environment for tackling the HEU issue. That’s all you can ask when you go into negotiations. The idea that you’ll know ahead of time that the talks will succeed, and that you’ll get everything you want in the final agreement is fantasy.

Hani: In your response to my question about “the uranium enrichment program”, you mentioned, “…and that, it seemed to me, formed the foundation for eventually moving into talks with Pyongyang on both the missile and the highly enriched uranium (HEU) issues.” Did the Clinton administration perceive the issue as an HEU problem before Bush administration came into office?

Carlin: As I mentioned in the book, the Clinton Administration saw a developing HEU problem, but was waiting until the intelligence community gave its approval to raise the issue with the North in the diplomatic arena.

Hani: Some people argued that the October 2000 joint communique included expressions indicating the U.S. and North Korea would deal with the uranium enrichment issue. Could you please explain to me which expressions represent those contexts?

Carlin: The section noting the relevance and positive example of the resolution of the Kumchang-ri issue was designed to provide an opening for discussing the HEU problem at some point. The exact passage is: “To this end, the two sides agreed on the desirability of greater transparency in carrying out their respective obligations under the Agreed Framework. In this regard, they noted the value of the access which removed U.S. concerns about the underground site at Kumchang-ri.”

Note the phrase – “the value of access.” That formulation was used very deliberately. It is worth noting that we gave the North Koreans a draft of this document as early as January 2000, and we referred to it in meetings with the North Koreans throughout the year. As I recall, at talks with the North Koreans in Rome, we also broadly hinted about the possible need for further access, and I had the impression at the time they knew we had something specific in mind. As I note in the Chapter 17 in the book, I think it is worth reexamining the commonly accepted notion that the North Koreans were taken completely by surprise in October 2002 when the US delegation raised the enrichment issue.

Hani: You mentioned that the action-reaction cycle between the U.S. and North Korea has been described as “the cycle” of North Korean provocation-negotiation-reward erroneously. Could you please explain to me the reason why it is wrong?

Carlin: We’ve become fixated on this idea of the “cycle” as if it describes something essential about North Korean policy and, in effect, absolves us of responsibility for shaping events. We seem to have forgotten that we (the US and South Korea) are in some sense part-a large part–of what goes on. Some North Korean actions (“provocations”) are actually tactical moves, for example, an effort to apply pressure when the US or South Korea are laggard in implementing their side of a bargain. I once had a North Korean diplomat tell me that they don’t like operating on the edge of the cliff, but sometimes they feel they have to in order to get Washington or Seoul to take matters seriously and focus on solutions rather than just left the situation drift. That isn’t to say everything the North can be explained in these terms. I still don’t understand what the motivation was for the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do in 2010, an act completely and dangerously out of character with North Korean actions for the previous 40 years or so.

In some sense, it might make more sense to view the larger problem less as one of North Korean cycles than it is of vicious circles, each side feeding the other’s worst tendencies. I’ve often thought that hardliners in the South were in a curious way actually the best friends of the hardliners in the North, and vice versa. It’s not as if these cycles/circles are a force of nature or an enduring fixture in the heavens. There are breaks, windows of opportunity when events can be nudged in one direction or another. Whether we take advantage of these windows, or indeed help create them, is another question.

Hani: In your response to the “cycle” of the North Korea, you mentioned, “We seem to have forgotten that we (the U.S. and South Korea) are in some sense part-a large part-of what goes on. Some North Korean actions (“provocations”) are actually tactical moves,….” and also wrote, “In some sense, it might make more sense to view the larger problem less as one of North Korean cycles than it is of vicious circles, each side feeding the other’s worst tendencies.” Could you please present one or two specific examples of your explanations for my clearer understanding?

Carlin: During the Agreed Framework period, the North would sometimes slow or stop the canning of the spent fuel rods at Yongbyon, or delay visas for US experts involved in the canning process not simply to cause trouble but because the US was slow in fulfilling its own obligation. (Most often that was because we were laggard in shipping heavy fuel oil, an obligation under the Agreed Framework.) Such actions on the North’s part may seem minor from the distance of time, but when they are actually happening, these DPRK moves are magnified in importance and labeled either provocative or examples of bad faith. It is difficult to get people to consider them in the context of US actions.

To take another example, the Panmunjom “axe incident” of August 1976 was a horrendous, completely unjustified overreaction on the North’s part, but the sequence of events is not as simple as commonly understood. Rather than an unprovoked attack coming out of the blue, the incident stemmed from a dispute over whether or not the UNC Command side could trim a tree in the Joint Security Area without the permission of the North Korean side. At the time of the slaying of the two US officers, no one in Washington seemed to know that the North Koreans had a few days earlier warned the UNC side not to trim the same tree. This is not a question of excusing the North’s actions, but rather of understanding the cycle that can lead to clashes.

Hani: The United States and South Korean government have argued that the Agreed Framework have presented the “failure” of the Agreed Framework as major argument against negotiation with North Korea. How do you think about such argument? What’s your overall view on the Agreed Framework?

Carlin: The Agreed Framework was much more than the words on paper. Under its umbrella, there began a range of meetings and activities with the DPRK, a process of multilateral engagement and discussions with the North on a variety of important issues, including missiles. The North Koreans were not particularly interested in discussing missiles at first, but the US was insistent, and at that point keeping the Agreed Framework on track by keeping on the good side of the Americans was a central goal for Pyongyang.

Washington tended to view the Agreed Framework primarily as a non-proliferation agreement, but I always saw it as something of broader significance. To the North Koreans, it was a way to operationalize Kim Il Song’s strategic decision to improve relations with the US, as a hedge against Chinese and Russian influence. It was not about getting heavy fuel oil or light water reactors, it was about achieving more normal relations with the United States. For that reason, in some ways, Pyongyang may have been more committed to the Agreed Framework in the early years than was Washington, which at that point didn’t place much importance on the broader political reach of the framework.

For that reason, sustaining the Agreed Framework over its initial four or five years was a challenge. It was already wobbling by the time of the North’s rocket launch in August 1998 and the Kumchang-ri episode, both of which opponents of the framework raised as reasons to scrap the deal. Instead of scrapping it, however, the Clinton Administration moved to reevaluate it — and the entire basis for engaging the North — in the Perry process, which was an intellectually honest and thoroughgoing review of the policy. The result was that in its final 18 months, the Clinton administration spent a lot of time and effort on putting the framework on a stronger foundation, revitalizing and reshaping the agreement in order to move it to a new level. In many ways, the October 2000 joint communique symbolized that new plateau.

The idea that the framework “failed” comes exclusively from events swirling around how the Bush administration handled the HEU problem, and the charge that the North “cheated.” It is further based on the mistaken notion that because the Agreed Framework was bilateral, the North felt it could violate the deal without serious consequences.

Two points here need to be understood very clearly. First, senior members of the Bush administration came to office deeply opposed to the Agreed Framework, with absolutely no commitment to sustaining it, and with every intention to doing away with the agreement if they possibly could. From the time Bush’s inauguration in January 2001 until the Kelly visit to Pyongyang in October 2002-almost two years-there were no US-DPRK talks outside of largely sterile contacts through the “New York channel.” In other words, by the time James Kelly visited Pyongyang, the Agreed Framework had been virtually suffocated. The only part of it that was working – the Korean Energy Development Organization – was on the chopping block in Washington.

The second important point is that once the Kelly visit ended and senior officials in Washington became transfixed by the idea that the North had admitted that it had an HEU program, the thinking turned completely to how to punish the North-not how to deal with the HEU problem while keeping the Agreed Framework intact, but simply how to punish the North. At that point, Washington did not care if the Agreed Framework disappeared, and had no idea of what to put in its place.

There is no doubt in my mind that the North’s pursuit of an HEU program was a major miscalculation. The details of the decision making in Pyongyang to go that route we will only learn at a later date, if at all. In any case, it was very typical of Pyongyang’s view that it can exploit the seams of agreements it reaches. That is – or ought to be – understood as a given in dealing with North Korea, and it is something that can be factored into any serious agreements. It is a reason to be careful, but it is not an excuse for policy paralysis. The question that faced us at the time was always one of balance-how to make sure that US interests were protected and our goals achieved while dealing with the inevitable twists and turns on the road of implementation. It was absolutely imperative to stop the North’s HEU program, and for that, we needed both a careful strategy and the best possible tactical environment for achieving that goal. I don’t know if, in the end, our approach would have worked, but it is beyond dispute that the alternative path that was chosen, destroying the Agreed Framework in favor of Six Party talks, has failed.

Hani: You pointed out that the neocons had no intention of improving the Agreed Framework and wanted to destroy it. So, I am wondering which country was more responsible for destroying the Agreed Framework.

Carlin: The neocons wanted to do away with the Agreed Framework, and the North Koreans certainly played into their hands. If Washington had wanted to keep the Agreed Framework-strengthen it, update it, improve it – I think those would have been possible and certainly the wiser course. At this point, assigning responsibility is probably less useful than studying and learning from decisions (on both sides) that had bad consequences.

Hani: You described the details of the Kang Sok Ju-James Kelly meeting held in October 2002. In particular, you wrote, “Looking back years later, several of the delegation members saw what had gone wrong in their first reaction.” Do you mean by those expressions that some delegation members admitted their wrong interpretation of Kang’s statements?

Carlin: Several people eventually admitted that Kang’s remarks were more ambiguous than they first concluded. Having seen the notes of what Kang said soon after the meeting, it seemed to me that he never “admitted”, nor did he explicitly deny, anything. In any case, I never understood what difference it made what the North Koreans said in this regard at that meeting. If we had evidence that they were pursuing an HEU program, then that was a problem and it had to be solved. Whether or not they admitted it – explicitly or implicitly – or denied it wasn’t relevant. If Washington hadn’t been so intent on doing away with the Agreed Framework, a more fruitful approach would have been to do what we had done in November 1999-tell the North Koreans that we had evidence that they were engaged in activity that was going to make it impossible to move ahead with the Agreed Framework until the problem was resolved, and then go into negotiations to fix the problem. Instead, we told the North Koreans, in so many words, that they had been caught cheating, and until they fixed the problem there was nothing to talk about.

Hani: September 2005 Joint Statement failed to be implemented due to the verification issue. Which party was more responsible for a failure of Joint Statement and six party talks?

Carlin: There is an assumption in this question the 9/5 joint statement was a solid agreement to begin with. My own view is that it never had a strong base, and that whatever shallow foundation it did have was destroyed immediately by the final US statement at the meeting delivered by Ambassador Hill, and then by the Treasury announcement the following day on Banco Delta Asia (BDA). Things were cobbled together again after BDA was resolved-which, notably, was soon after the North’s first nuclear test in October 2006. But this was only patchwork. By the time the verification issue arose in 2007 and 2008, there was not much to support or sustain the process. Everything was focused on verification, there was little in the way supporting structure. The whole edifice was extremely vulnerable. It was like skating on thin ice that is cracking behind you as you go. You have to hope to skate fast enough to avoid falling in.

Hani: The U.S. and North Korea reached a temporary agreement on February 2012 and they published the different versions of agreement. You mentioned that the differences were not minor. Despite such differences, why did they publish Leap Day Deal?

Carlin: A key problem for me is that we don‘t know all the details of what went on the negotiations. That’s not to say that there are “secrets” about the talks, but that the nuances of the negotiations, and especially the final stages, aren’t yet understood. My experience is that it’s very hard to know what went on in talks unless you were actually sitting in the room, and even then, many of the participants will differ on what transpired. Those sorts of differences may be less important when there is an agreed text at the end of the negotiations. In this case, there was no agreed text; I don’t know why not. If the argument is that there was no time to work out an agreed text, or that it would have been too difficult, that would seem to weaken the idea that there really was a “deal” to begin with.

Hani: What did you want to focus on in your book?

Carlin: Mainly to clear away the myths that have grown up over the past 13 years about what is possible in terms of dealing with the North. We have so burdened ourselves with stereotypes and misimpressions that it is no wonder we seem to be tied to the mast while the ship slowly sinks. If our assumptions about the situation in the North are faulty, or if our understanding of how the situation reached this point is skewed, then it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll be able to achieve our goals. If we believe that it is impossible to negotiate with North Korea or that reaching agreements with them is a waste of time because they will only break them anyway, we will not only be misreading history but also dooming ourselves to shortsighted policies.

Hani: If there were major updated parts in earlier sixteen chapters, please let me know about those ones.

Carlin: I added recently available information on a number of the earlier sections, for example: Kim Il Song’s trip to Beijing in 1975; the 1976 Panmunjom incident; and Chinese efforts to engage South Korea in the late 1990s.

Hani: Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in ABC’s This Week last month North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s execution of his uncle makes denuclearization even more of a priority for the United States. What effect do you think the execution of Jang Song Taek on U.S policy toward North Korea?

Carlin: I have no idea. Our public reaction struck me as somewhat hysterical. It seems to me it would have been enough to say that we had seen reports on events in the North, that we were following the situation closely, and that we remained fully prepared to cope with all contingencies. It’s probably natural for those people writing the talking points to connect Jang’s execution to the nuclear issue. Washington is fixated by the nuclear issue (they would say, rather, that they are focused like a laser on the issue), and in this mind-set, virtually everything that happens is in some sense linked to it. To some people that might seem a sensible, principled, and effective position to adopt. To others, it might look like a policy straight jacket.

Hani: You have observed the U.S.-North Korean relationships for decades very closely. What are the fundamental causes they could not resolve the stalemate?

Carlin: The stars are rarely aligned for the two sides to engage and make real progress. One side or the other is usually out of phase. The North Koreans are much smaller and weaker; it is rare for them to take the initiative out of concern that they will be exposing their vulnerabilities. That doesn’t mean the North Koreans don’t think seriously about various options, but that, at least in their minds, the U.S. has to make the first move, even if it is only a positive gesture. I recall once a ranking North Korean diplomat was visiting the United States at a crucial time, and it made a good deal of sense for us to meet with him. Washington was hesitant to initiate the contact, windows of opportunity closed, and we were running out of time. At the last minute, arguments in favor of contacting the diplomat won the day, but by then he was at the airport, boarding his plane. When months later, I ran into this diplomat and mentioned that it would have been helpful if a meeting had taken place while he was in the US, he nodded. “Yes, it would have been,” he said, adding that he had some ideas to raise if there had been a meeting. In that case, I asked, why didn’t you call us? His reply highlighted the problem: “I couldn’t take the first step,” he said. “My instructions were to wait for your side to contact me.”

Hani: Please let me know your proposals to improve the relations between the U.S. and North Korea.

Carlin: I’m long out of the government and not in a position to make recommendations.

Hani: What do you think about prospects for inter-Korea relations considering the New Year speeches of both leaders?

Carlin: All I know is that when what look like openings appear, it’s important to test and, if possible, build on them. Waiting for something better to come along has never proved to be wise. In some sense, the old adage “good things come to those who wait,” is exactly wrong when dealing with the Korean situation. At the moment, the two sides look to be sniffing the air and sending half-way positive signals. I don’t try to predict where things will go, sometimes it’s hard enough just to figure out where they are at the moment.


By Park Hyun, Washington correspondent, The Hankyoreh



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