Lee Sigal on the Current State of Play

April 26, 2012 7:00 AM

Anyone who watches North Korea closely has to take seriously what Lee Sigal writes. He has consistently made the case that the North Koreans are willing to respond to positive incentives, while sanctions are counterproductive; in short, Pyongyang plays a tit-for-tat game. A short annotated bibliography of important pieces are appended below, and they cover the entire post-1990 period. All of them are worth reading.

So it matters if Sigal is changing his mind, or more accurately, that he sees the North Koreans as changing their approach. The core argument of his new piece in The National Interest is that the North Koreans simply don’t care as much as they did about improving relations with the US. We agree.

For example, earlier negotiations after the crisis broke in 2002 showed an interest in security guarantees; although the North Koreans brought up the peace regime idea in 2009-2010, it was more in the form of a poison pill. The focus on military-first politics seems completely unconcerned with what the rest of the world thinks, including the Chinese.

Sigal offers up some interesting speculation about North Korea’s grand strategy, including the underplayed significance of the Russian summit of last year. Sigal also notes that relations with the South will change of their own course with the departure of the LMB government, which Pyongyang has shown no interest in dealing with.

The conclusion: in the absence of real commitments from North Korea there is little to do but try to “contain” North Korea. From Sigal, that's saying something.

Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. Sigal’s take on the first nuclear crisis, with emphasis on US and IAEA missteps.

"North Korea Is No Iraq: Pyongyang's Negotiating Strategy," Arms Control Today, December 2002. Sounding the alarms bells about Bush administration policy, drawing on lessons of negotiations under Clinton.

"Misplaying North Korea and Losing Friends and Influence in Northeast Asia," The North Korean Nuclear Crisis: Regional Perspectives, July 12, 2005, http://northkorea.ssrc.org/Sigal/. Surveys the first Bush administration.

"Punishing North Korea won't work," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists , May 28, 2009. Surveys second Bush administration.

“Looking for Leverage in All the Wrong Places,” 38North U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, May 1 2010.  Criticizes the Obama administration for being slow off the mark in dealing with North Korea.


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