THAAD interceptor launch - The U.S. Army Ralph Scott/Missile Defense Agency/U.S. Department of Defense

North Korea: Building Trust Through China

Past negotiations between the United States and North Korea on the issue of de-nuclearization have all ended in failure.  While some progress has been made and agreements initially honored, eventually they have all broken down due the inability of both sides to honor their commitments. This lack of integrity in the implementation phase of the negotiations has directly contributed to the current stalemate over the DPRK’s nuclear program as both sides have dug their heels in on their current positions. In this piece, former United States Army captain John Rugarber examines why de-nuclearization of North Korea has become intractable by analyzing historical behaviors and current perceptions, potential methods for building trust once the current tensions have subsided, and the disastrous potential impact of failing to gain trust with North Korea.


North Korean de-nuclearization efforts have become intractable because both the United States and North Korea are in a stalemate and neither side trusts one another.  In the past, agreements have broken down because neither side has fulfilled their end of the agreements.  In 1994, the Bilateral Agreed Framework Talks between the United States and North Korea were successful in halting the North Korean nuclear program, but ultimately broke down because of failed fuel deliveries and stalled energy plant construction, claims North Korea made statements about possessing a nuclear weapons program in violation of the agreement, and the expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.[1]  The subsequent first round of the Six Party Talks initially broke down due the absence of a nonaggression pact from the United States, which North Korea said was essential to the destruction of its nuclear weapons.  The second round of the Talks broke down when the United States and its allies refused to allow North Korea to continue its civil nuclear program despite Russia and China’s insistence that the latter accept the deal.[2]

Subsequent rounds have broken down due to issues concerning “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program, the slow removal of North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list despite promises to rapidly do so, the Banco Delta Asia fiasco, which caused the United States to unwittingly freeze the bank accounts of North Korean elites, as well as North Korean denials concerning verbal agreements made between U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and North Korean diplomats concerning the collection of radioactive samples at the Yongbyon reprocessing plant.[3] The United States eventually suspended the talks altogether and has, with other regional powers, levied “sticks” against North Korea in the form of UN sanctions in the hope of using coercive means to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programs.  All sanction regimes to-date have done little to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

These series of broken promises and perceptions of deliberate deception between both actors have made bilateral mutual trust in future negotiations all but impossible.  As a result, the United States has adopted a position of no talks without North Korean unilateral de-nuclearization while North Korea has adopted a siege mentality and links its possession of nuclear weapons as an integral part of its identity.  These two polarizing positions, as well as the current lack of desire to build mutual trust, which was recently demonstrated by President Obama’s refusal to suspend joint military operations with South Korea in exchange for North Korea’s suspension of further nuclear tests, reinforcing existing perceptions of unreasonableness and distrust among the two parties.

Even offering incentives in exchange for de-nuclearization has proven problematic due to the lack of trust between the two parties.  In the past, the United States and its allies have offered “carrots” such as unconditional unilateral humanitarian aid to build confidence prior to negotiations or economic relief programs like the “Vision 300: Non-nuclear, Openness, 3000 Plan” which was designed to boost the annual per capita income of North Korean citizens from $1,800 to $3000 over the course of a decade.[4] On the surface, such offers do not appear unreasonable or manipulative, since North Korea faced a humanitarian crisis in the mid-1990s and the Vision 3000 plan promised further incentives based on the progress of North Korea’s simultaneous de-nuclearization.  However, in the case of the humanitarian aid, since there was not an intermediary in charge of distribution, the aid ended up going to the army instead of the people, which caused the United States to halt the program.  The Vision 3000 Plan was rejected by North Korea because the plan’s economic reforms and openness were capitalistic and would inevitably result in the collapse of the totalitarian regime because it would expose the people to the outside world via trade. Thus, the frustrations surrounding the implementation of these seemingly reasonable and innocuous programs have resulted in North Korea being viewed as unreasonable and greedy by the United States and its allies.

Another reason why the de-nuclearization talks are intractable is the subsequent fates of Libya and Ukraine after they gave up either their weapons of mass destruction or handed over their nuclear weapons.  In both cases, the absence of a WMD deterrent has allowed outside actors to either force a regime change or conduct a destabilization campaign. North Korea, whose principle interest is regime survival, has repeatedly pointed to these two cases as justification for retaining its nuclear arsenal, since it believes it could suffer a similar fate should it denuclearize, especially given then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2012 remarks press statement following the death of Kim Jong-Il that “the United States stand ready to help the North Korean people.”

Therefore, the clash between the DPRK’s interest and the United States’ position and foreign policy actions in Libya have led both a lack of trust and incentive for North Korea to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons program.

GRIT: A definition

Success in future negotiations is defined by the existence of trust between North Korea, China, and the United States. One way the United States could build trust and confidence with North Korea is by using a GRIT strategy. As discussed in a previous article,  “GRIT is designed to work, not because of mutual respect or affection between parties, but merely because their self-interest is served by the reduction in suspicion and tension.”[5]  In essence, GRIT calls for one party to voluntarily send costly signals to the other side, which are designed to persuade the other side that the initiating party is trustworthy since these signals are so costly that it puts the initiating side at risk or signals a fundamental shift in the initiator’s position.  Although perhaps not initially reciprocated, signals and gestures must be continued over a period of time in order to build trust through perseverance. It also differs from a strict tit-for-tat, or “action-for-action” plan because reciprocation is not expected after the first initiative. While traditional GRIT strategy is used in bilateral negotiations, the proposals below advocate the United States use GRIT with China taking ownership of the implementation process.

China’s role

The United States should aim to cooperate with China due to Beijing remaining the only power with significant leverage over North Korea.  China makes up over 86.3% of North Korea’s exports and 79.4% of its imports, and while the historic “lips-to-teeth” relationship has been frayed over the past several years due to Beijing’s frustrations with Pyongyang’s actions, China’s continued interests in preventing a North Korean refugee crisis in the event of war and the permanent establishment of US military bases north of the 38th parallel in the event of unification have guaranteed North Korea’s survival.  Furthermore, although China has a strict non-interference policy when it comes to the domestic affairs of North Korea, its 2016 endorsement of significant sanctions and current misgivings about North Korea’s aggressive behavior actually are examples of interference especially since those sanctions directly affect the economy of North Korea and would not be possible without China’s approval.  “Thus, based on geographical proximity, ideological affinity, and time-weathered friendship, China alone can express a full and sincere understanding of North Korea’s security concerns.”[6]

Partial GRIT with China

In order to build confidence and gain China as an ally to push North Korea towards de-nuclearization, the United States should recall the Thermal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to East Asia, which China feels threatens its strategic deterrence. Additionally, the United States would encourage Japan and South Korea to halt their aspirations to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent against North Korea.  Both of these issues would allow China to maintain its strategic deterrent and lesson current tensions in the region.  These voluntary gestures demonstrate costs to not only the United States, but also great costs to its allies and will therefore be viewed as trustworthy by China, although stop short of a true GRIT strategy, since the United States would seek reciprocation from China in negotiations and therefore the recall of THAAD should not be viewed as manipulative.

GRIT with North Korea

One of the ways the United States could build trust with North Korea is to begin to supply the DPRK with humanitarian aid. However, instead of directly giving aid to the DPRK like in 1994, the United States should send aid to North Korea using China as a facilitator and ask the latter to supervise the distribution of the aid in order to ensure it goes to the people and not to the Korea People’s Army. Even in the absence of reciprocation, the United States should continue to give humanitarian aid to North Korea while continuing to engage China to gauge North Korea’s interest only in coming to the table for talks without mentioning de-nuclearization: mentioning the latter will make the aid appear manipulative and further the feelings of mistrust of the United States. The distribution of aid should not upset the United States’ allies in the region, since it does not compromise the security of either Japan or South Korea.

Simultaneously, the United States should announce its interest in entering into a non-aggression treaty with North Korea that guarantees it will refrain from offensive uses of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of North Korea and that none of the U.S.’s weapons will be used against North Korea expect in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. While the announcement should include an explicit invitation to reciprocate and enter into talks, it should not demand reciprocation from North Korea. By not making it conditional, the United States will send a clear signal to North Korea that it has fundamentally changed its current position of “no talks without de-nuclearization” as well as send a message to China that that it is serious about peace, since the latter criticized the recent U.S. announcement that combined talks of a peace treaty together with sanctions. The possible domestic political costs to the U.S. leader who makes such a statement will also make it appear more believable to North Korea, since that U.S. leader willingly risks condemnation from either the opposing party or their own for making such an overt unconditional gesture. Lastly, by making the agreement a treaty, the United States will give the agreement a sense of permanency, whose absence has hampered the United States inability to sustain consistent policies through transitions in Washington’s and Seoul’s administrations.[7]

Along similar lines, the United States should encourage its ally South Korea to openly discuss its “Vision 300: Non-nuclear, Openness, 3000 Plan” again without referencing the “de-nuclearization first policy” that doomed it previously. In addition, instead of directly giving the economic stimulus to North Korea, South Korea should announce its plan to execute economic recovery plan through China, who would assist North Korea in the development of a self-sufficient economy and therefore avoid any overexposure to the outside world that the Kim regime fears might result from trade interactions with certain countries.[8]

In addition to overarching plans, South Korea should develop a detailed timeline with specific schedules of how and when the grand bargain recovery plan will be distributed to North Korea. Open pre-negotiations with China in order to jointly establish this timeline will demonstrate the seriousness of this gesture and will reduce North Korean ambiguity regarding the reasons for this coordination since they will not occur in secret.  The joint timeline will also overcome North Korea’s concerns about past reneged Allied promises since the program’s execution will be supervised by China. Additionally, South Korea could show cost and execute the first round of payments to North Korea in order to demonstrate their seriousness of the offer and determination to carry out the agreed upon plan.  It should do so without overtly seeking reciprocation, however Seoul should liaise with China to gauge the effectiveness of this payment in bringing North Korea to the table.

The Impact of No Trust

The longer the United States continues to maintain its current no talks without de-nuclearization position, its chances of permanently denuclearizing North Korea will continue to diminish.  If left unchecked, North Korea will eventually develop a way to put a nuclear warhead on top of a ballistic missile or extend the range of its submarines to directly threaten the civilian populations of the United States. Once that happens, it is all but assured that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons. Thus, it is imperative for the United States to adopt a GRIT strategy in dealing with North Korea through China in order to build trust for future de-nuclearization negotiations.

Such a strategy would signal a radical departure from the historic “carrots and sticks” approach employed by the United States and as game theory tests have proven, “there can be little question that the perseverance with the [GRIT] strategy in the face of doubt, resistance, ridicule, or skepticism cannot fail create the impression of commitment to the trustworthy action of the initiator in the eyes of the benefactor.”[9]

John Rugarber is a former United States Army Captain and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point with multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. John is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in Conflict Management.

Photo credit:  U.S. Army/Ralph Scott/Missile Defense Agency/U.S. Department of Defense

  1. Anne Wu (2005) What China Whispers to North Korea, The Washington Quarterly, 28:2, 35-48.
  2. Galtung, Johan, and Jae-Bong Lee. Korea: The Twisting Roads to Unification. Oslo: Kolofon, 2011. Print.
  3. Gu Guoliang. “China’s Policy toward the DPRK’s Nuclear and Missile Programs.” China and North Korea: Strategic and Policy Perspectives from a Changing China. Ed. Carla P. Freeman. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 157-177. Print.
  4. Kim, Suk H., Terence Roehrig, and Bernhard Seliger. The Survival of North Korea: Essays on Strategy, Economics and International Relations. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print.
  5. Lindskold, Svenn. 1978. Trust Development, the GRIT Proposal, and the Effects of Conciliatory Acts on Conflict and Cooperation. Psychological Bulletin 85 (4):772-93.
  6. Anne Wu (2005) What China Whispers to North Korea, The Washington Quarterly, 28:2, 35-48. pg. 40.
  7. Kim, pg. 227.
  8. Wu, pg. 43.
  9. Lindskold, pgs. 783-784.


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