Diplomats and military experts have cautioned restraint in the US response to Kim Jong Un's provocative missile tests. They warn that military threats and actions by the U.S. could provoke a catastrophic war. They call instead for tougher sanctions. But as the crisis continues to mount, there remains little clarity on the objectives of sanctions and their relationship, if any, to negotiations. A more thorough and rigorous strategic approach is needed.
Research on the effectiveness of international sanctions is not reassuring. In most cases, including North Korea, they fail to achieve their objectives. For example, only 10 percent of United Nations sanctions imposed between 1991 and 2013 succeeded in coercing the target to improve its behaviour. Less than a third of the UN sanctions were able to constrain the target's proscribed activities, such as acquiring weaponry.
Why do sanctions have such limited success? After all, the logic is beguilingly simple: if prohibitive costs are imposed on the target regime, its leaders will at some point surely change their conduct as a matter of rational self-interest.
The reality is more complicated. The target regime may be able to mitigate the impact of sanctions through domestic production and imports from allies. It may be willing to endure an enormous amount of pain if it believes its survival is at stake. And its cost-benefit analysis, while not irrational, is skewed by ideology and a visceral cocktail of anger, insecurity, paranoia and righteousness.
An even more sobering observation is that sanctions can be counter-productive. They can strengthen authoritarian rule, reinforce a hardline posture and help to mobilize popular support in defence of the nation against foreign enemies. They can also invoke opposition from neighbouring countries which resent coercive action by powers from outside the region.
Perversely, sanctions can reduce the prospect of containing or resolving the conflict through negotiations. This is especially likely if the sanctions are intended to induce regime change. In such instances, they harden the regime's intransigence because the political costs of giving in to sanctions are greater than the costs of living under sanctions.
What should be the objective of negotiations with North Korea? The answer should be framed by the notion of 'negotiations as the art of the possible'.
A critical strategic question emerging from this perspective is whether the sanctions against North Korea are intended to make the regime receptive to negotiations. Public messages from the U.S. administration have been wildly inconsistent in this regard, oscillating between apocalyptic threats and an openness to talks.
Whether this inconsistency stems from policy incoherence or a 'bad cop -- good cop' tactic, it is not productive. If you were Kim Jong Un, prudence dictates that you would stay defiant.
Of course sanctions and negotiations are strategies, not ends in themselves. This raises a second critical question: what should be the objective of negotiations with North Korea? The answer should be framed by the notion of 'negotiations as the art of the possible'. Ideal outcomes, like the reunification of Korea and nuclear disarmament by Pyongyang, are clearly not on the cards.
But the less ambitious objectives of risk containment and de-escalation, of normalized diplomatic relations, are possibly within reach. Achieving these objectives would be hugely important in its own right. It might also build mutual confidence and positive momentum incrementally, creating space for further progress.
Negotiated agreements to manage or resolve protracted conflicts do not have outright winners and losers. They do not enable any single party to get everything it wants. Instead, they entail politically unpalatable compromises –- for all sides. All sides have to win something and concede something. A collectively acceptable deal is reached when each party regards its gains as sufficient to outweigh its concessions.
Put differently, each party must see the negotiated deal as preferable to its worst-case scenario. These scenarios, which differ for North Korea, China, the US, South Korea and other affected countries, include regime change, state collapse and war.
The immediate challenge is to get the parties to agree to enter into negotiations. This is a formidable challenge in light of the prevailing bellicosity and mistrust.
Addressing these cardinal apprehensions of the different parties would be the primary aim of an agreement on risk containment and de-escalation. More concretely, the negotiations could focus on halting North Korea's nuclear and missile tests in return for the US suspending or limiting its military exercises with South Korea. In 2014 North Korea itself made a proposal along these lines, albeit as a temporary arrangement.
The immediate challenge is to get the parties to agree to enter into negotiations. This is a formidable challenge in light of the prevailing bellicosity and mistrust. On a slightly more optimistic note, though, Washington and Pyongyang have for many years had a communication backchannel at the UN in New York. The strategic question here is whether an impartial intermediary -– like the UN Secretary-General or one of the Scandinavian countries –- could play a useful supplementary role.
Intermediaries that are trusted by all sides offer the invaluable benefit of mitigating the suspicion and adversarial dynamics associated with high-intensity conflict. By acting as a buffer and bridge between the parties, they can help to ease tension, facilitate communication and transform the parties' preconditions for negotiations into issues that are the subject of negotiations.
If the intermediaries are skilled mediators, they can also design and manage an appropriate process for productive talks. This is frequently more effective than conducting adversarial negotiations without a competent mediator.
The approach advocated here does not assume that negotiations with North Korea are definitely feasible or would definitely lead to a collectively satisfactory agreement. The assumption is rather that the gravity of the crisis, and the absence of attractive alternatives, oblige decision-makers to take seriously the option of negotiations
This requires a comprehensive and coherent approach in which all strategies –- including sanctions, other forms of pressure, incentives, signals, alliances and intermediary roles –- are oriented consistently, uniformly and directly towards the initiation of negotiations.