Entry 34: The Missed Bilateral Window for Denuclearization?

January 30, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 34th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


I wrote a little over 750 words today. The past week has been unusually productive for the book, even though it’s come at the expense of other writing projects for the moment. I’m normally fine balancing multiple writing projects at once — even though I’m told it’s not advisable — but the deadline looming over this book is driving me to be more single-minded than usual.

It’s obvious that the Trump administration inherited a bad situation on North Korea policy, but reviewing reams of evidence from the Obama years has forced me to change my explanation for why. In the initial proposal for the book, I argued that Obama’s team had been overly complacent and drifted toward hardline military thinking about North Korea. That’s not wrong, but it’s also not specific.

The administration saw Pyongyang’s mobile missile threat as a strategic problem from the beginning, and, contrary to the New York Times, it was getting good foresight from the intelligence community. At first the Obama team tried to resolve the nuke issue through diplomacy. The problem was they had a very narrow conception of what counted as diplomacy — the Six-Party Talks process, which started under Bush, and an explicit commitment to “comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” (“CVID” in wonk parlance).

That early uncompromising commitment to Six-Party Talks and the goal of CVID never changed over eight years. But, as the Bill Clinton conversation with Kim Jong Il in 2009 presaged, that’s a showstopper. North Korea gave up on the Six-Party Talks mode of engagement before Obama even took office, and by 2009 it already had a modest nuclear weapon capability. Diplomacy never had a chance because of how we defined success and the road to it.

In hindsight, I have doubts that North Korea would’ve ever been willing to give up nuclear weapons after 2002, but if it was, the path to disarmament was bilateral, not multilateral. We never really gave that a try. The United States hid behind multilateralism. The Six-Party process became a way to dilute accountability—blame shifting from the United States to North Korea’s neighbors—for failing to take meaningful action on North Korea.

There were a bunch of other, largely circumstantial reasons fueling the “strategic patience” of the Obama administration, but the defining context was one of total obstinacy about strategy.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.