Foreign Policy Blogs

North Korean Time-Inconsistency Dilemma

The U.S. has a time-inconsistency dilemma with North Korea.  In a time-inconsistency dilemma, someone’s preferences change over time.  The concept is usually applied to behavioral economics, but it also applies to security situations.

Take terrorism.   The U.S. may want to negotiate with a terrorist to prevent him from committing future attacks.  But negotiating might encourage other terrorists to carry out attacks against us.  So it’s a dilemma.  Today, I may want to negotiate with a terrorist.  Tomorrow, after I’ve negotiated, and other terrorists are threatening me in order to draw me into more negotiations, I’ll regret my decision.

The same dilemma plagues the U.S.’s non-proliferation strategy.  As William Sweet of the FPA Arms Control and Proliferation blog noted earlier this week of the U.S.’s failure to punish North Korea for violating and withdrawing from the NPT:

The situation obviously sets a terrible precedent, and obviously it would be in everybody’s best interest if some way could be found of punishing North Korea so severely that no other country will ever be inclined to follow its example.

Like the terrorist example, if we don’t punish North Korea, we may be rewarding and encouraging bad behavior.  But in the terrorist example, if I don’t negotiate, the terrorist may still attack me.  Similarly, if we punish North Korea, it will only bring us further from Korean denuclearization.

To understand why, we need to understand why North Korea (or any country for that matter) wants nuclear weapons.  Siegfried Hecker, in a recent Daedalus article to which Sweet links, examines North Korea through the three theoretical lenses Scott Sagan offered in his 1990’s article,  Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? (A similar article applying Sagan’s analysis to North Korea appeared last year in NYU’s Journal of Political Inquiry).  Sagan offers three explanations for the nuke desire: security, domestic politics, and norms.  Sagan generally finds the security argument the least convincing.  Hecker, though, sees it as the driving force that motivated North Korean nuclear weapons acquisition.  North Korea, in Hecker’s assessment, has genuine security concerns that drove it toward nuclear weaponry.

There’s much evidence to support this claim.  Take a Frontline interview to which Sweet also links.  It examines U.S.-North Korean relations at the end of the Cold War:

MARTIN SMITH, FRONTLINE Correspondent: What did the North Koreans want?

CHARLES KARTMAN, State Department, 1975-01: We didn’t know, at the time. We thought they wanted nuclear weapons. And as we got into negotiations with them, we came to understand that they were willing to consider other routes to improving their own security and that the route that seemed to attract them the most was a new relationship with the United States.

I think this is still true.  After all, as North Korea stated in its state-run New Year’s media editorial that kicked off the year:

The fundamental problem arising in guaranteeing the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the region today is putting an end to the hostile relationship between the DPRK and the United States. Our position to provide a solid peace regime on the Korean peninsula and realize denuclearization through dialogue and negotiations remains consistent.

But there’s been no real discussion of getting back to something like the Agreed Framework, which broke down under the Bush administration.  One reason is that many blame North Korea for its failure, despite the fact that, as Fred Kaplan wrote:

Initially, North Korea kept to its side of the bargain. The same cannot be said of our side. Since the accord was not a formal treaty, Congress did not have to ratify the terms, but it did balk on the financial commitment. So did South Korea. The light-water reactors were never funded. Steps toward normalization were never taken.

Another reason is the time-inconsistency dilemma.  But if the U.S. is serious about North Korean denuclearization, it cannot pursue the punishment route.  Doing so would only exacerbate North Korea’s security concerns, giving the DPRK more of an interest in maintaining its nukes.  The U.S. must pursue diplomatic engagement and find some way to grapple with the time-inconsistency dilemma aftereffects that will result.