Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Pursuing a Multilateral Approach to negotiations designed to get North Korea to abandon efforts to develop Nuclear Weapons

This essay seeks to show that whilst there are numerous advantages in a multilateral approach to get the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (hereafter DPRK) to acquiesce to abandon its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, diplomatic momentum is mainly achieved in negotiations mostly where there is an effective bilateral approach. It is argued that a successful negotiation must focus on bilateral diplomacy and this initiates and supports multilateral negotiations. It is suggested that bilateral negotiations should preempt multilateral structures and as such the concept of ‘multi-bilateral’ negotiations provide the best platform and foundation for lasting success. It becomes evident that it is possible to continuously take advantage of the benefits of a multilateral approach based on the bilateral process used. It is argued that as long as bilateral negotiations are done with an overriding multilateral framework with adequate reporting and transparency, the perceived pitfalls, such as conflicting interests and legitimacy, can be mitigated. The question of the effectiveness of sanctions when applied either multilaterally or bilaterally is addressed. The position adopted is “Thinking Multilaterally but Acting Bilaterally” which has been suggested as the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) way (Acharya, 1999).

After clarifying the context in which the term ‘multilateral’ is used, a brief outline illustrates the common debates surrounding the advantages and disadvantages of multilateral negotiation. An assessment of how this has played out in the DPRK is discussed from primarily two perspectives, the period in the run up to the first nuclear crisis (1980 – 1992) culminating in a bilateral agreed framework between the DPRK and the US in 1994 and the first few years of this century including an assessment of the six party talks . Before concluding there is a brief appraisal of the current situation and suggestions as to how the current US administration of President Barack Obama might proceed based on the argument presented here.

What is Multilateral Diplomacy?

Multilateral diplomacy is defined as the management of international relations by negotiations among three or more states through diplomatic or governmental representatives without the services of a specialized secretariat (Boisard & Chossudovsky, 1997). ‘Multilateralism’ in the context of collective security, power or military intervention is slightly different than when used in the context of diplomatic negotiations. The latter is more relevant here. The rise of multilateral diplomacy has been made analogous to the rise in conferences where communication is conducted primarily by means of verbal face-to-face exchanges rather than in the traditional predominantly written style of bilateral diplomacy (Berridge, 2005). According to Ikenberry (2003), “Multilaterism involves the coordination of relations among three or more states according to a set of rules or principles … can be contrasted with interactions based on ad hoc bargaining or straightforward power politics …” (Ikenberry, 2003).

Why is multilateral diplomacy sometimes perceived as the right approach in North Korea?

In assessing negotiation approaches for ‘global problems’ such as nuclear proliferation, it is convenient to assume the liberalist stance of multilateral diplomacy. The commonly cited indispensable element of any negotiation would be to involve all parties with interests, implicit or explicit. Multilateralism has been encouraged by the strain in liberal thought which places emphasis on the importance of popular consent in sustaining government authority (Berridge, 2005). Apart from not being able to reach a mutually acceptable solution, doing otherwise could result in the loss of any symbolical value of consensus and credibility which are intrinsic in providing momentum for negotiations.

The proponents of multilateral diplomacy say that following the rise and growing influence of non state actors and NGOs in international politics, a predominantly bilateral approach for negotiations on nuclear proliferation would reduce their involvement. “Further complexity is added when attention is focused at the sub-state or transnational actor level as the motivations for of non-state actors are different from those associated with states” (Howlett, 2008). This however seems less relevant in North Korea.

A plethora of other reasons exist why multilateral diplomacy such as the six-party talks seems to make sense. Instruments of diplomacy such as economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure are thought to be weaker unless applied multilaterally. There is also the likelihood that a number of bilateral negotiations, where there are conflicting goals or methods, can derail an ongoing multilateral diplomatic effort. In addition, assuming the perspective of liberalism or political idealism that North Korea is a rational actor, consensus achieved in a multilateral framework could put enormous pressure for eventual compliance.

Why is it better to “Think Multilateral but act Bilateral”?

Despite the advantages of a multilateral approach presented thus far, bilateral strategies are more efficient and focused since there are fewer parties involved and therefore less coordination issues. It is easier to have more clarity of interests. Momentum can be maintained and agreements kept for longer periods as there are less exit options, collective action is at a minimum and it is less cumbersome to monitor compliance. The efficiency here provides additional flexibility in being able to deal with stumbling blocks or potential show stoppers as they are evident more quickly. The ability to act and have quicker agreements mitigates the likelihood of missing a “window of opportunity” which exists for solving each problem. It is unlikely that these opportunities will occur simultaneously in a multilateral context (Heppell, 1997). Bilateral diplomacy also addresses distinct differences in history, culture , force structure, domestic politics, intraregional animosities and economic development which are often lost in a complex multilateral framework especially where parties might be from different regions. This could explain the suggestion that transferring the structures of a multilateral framework such as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) would be ineffective in the Asia Pacific region (Heppell, 1997).

There are some examples of bilateral negotiations that have been criticized. The US’ attempts to persuade North Korea to join the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (hereafter NPT) in the 1980s, the DPRK’s and South Korea’s attempted implementation of their bilateral 1991 agreement to limit nuclear activities not in the NPT and the US and North Korea’s Agreed Framework in 1994. Its proponents have suggested that even though its future is uncertain, the six party talks was a multilateral strategy that gave impetus to negotiations. Notwithstanding, the 1994 Agreed Framework combined with The DPRK’s ascension to the NPT contributed in no small way to freezing plutonium production for nearly a decade. What was missing during this period was a series of other bilateral negotiations between other parties with interests. Pertinent also was China’s unwillingness during this period to use its influence to persuade North Korea to comply with IAEA inspections(Park, 2005). “To critics, the Agreed Framework undermined the NPT regime because it allowed North Korea to remain in violation of its safeguards obligations … To its supporters, the Agreed Framework accepted a delay in the North Korea’s compliance with safeguards in exchange for achieving a freeze on North Korea’s plutonium program which, if left hindered, could have produced much larger quantities of plutonium … “(Chipman, 2004). The framework agreement also bought time. Ted Carpenter notes that a 1999 report by the Clinton administration stated that without the freeze the agreement brought, North Korea could have produced 50 nuclear weapons in the intervening years. That they did not do so “is a solid achievement.”(Carpenter & Bandow, 2004)

Are sanctions less effective when applied bilaterally?

North Korea is under intense strain internally politically and economically. It has progressively got weaker despite recent attempts at economic reform . In general debates about sanctions, the impression is that they are weak and ineffective unless applied multilaterally. For North Korea however there are a number of reasons why this impression may be flawed.

There is one dominant nation with considerable influence on North Korea – China. North Korea depends on China for the bare necessities to keep it afloat i.e. food, energy and medicines. According to Shen (2009), “China is expected to play a significant role in changing North Korea’s nuclear course due to the economic bond between Beijing and Pyongyang, as well as their traditional bilateral defense ties” (Shen, 2009). Where a country has one significant trading partner, what becomes pertinent is the exploitation of the bilateral relationship in an effort to get North Korea to be less belligerent. One repeatedly cited example where this was used to great effect was in 2003 when China cut off oil supply for three days in a thinly veiled threat, citing ‘technical problems’ as the reason. The DPRK got the message and this tool altered its position toward the Three-Party Talks instigated by China in the lead up to the Six-Party talks. (Shen, 2009).

Consensus is often exceptionally difficult to reach in a multilateral forum. The debates range from how long sanctions should last for, how stringent they should be and what should form part of the sanctions. Heppell (1997) illustrates this in a section on ‘Factors promoting and preventing multilateral consensus on sanctions’. She lists all the reasons for supporting or opposing sanctions respectively for each of China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US (Heppell, 1997). This outline shows how diverse the reasons for support or lack of support of sanctions are. Even where there is a consensus, when reasons for support are based on conflicting interests, it could end up being counter-productive.

Is the assumption that only sanctions or diplomatic pressure applied from as many sources as possible lead to compliance correct? The liberalist supposition that North Korea is a rational actor and behaves as such seems to lack the depth of analysis needed to assess how the DPRK has responded similarly in the past and circumstances that might make it act unpredictably. In 1993, sudden additional pressure from the US, Russia and China, caused the DPRK to withdraw from the NPT, which was the opposite of the desired effect (Chipman, 2004).

How could timing, transparency and reporting mitigate perceived drawbacks of Bilateral Negotiations?

Chipman (2004) additionally notes that following North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT, “The US decided to engage in direct talks with North Korea, calculating that diplomatic pressure and the threat of sanctions wouldn’t be sufficient to disarm Pyongyang. Moreover, key players like China, Russia, South Korea and Japan made it clear they would not support tougher measures unless Washington first tried to resolve the issue through dialogue with Pyongyang”(Chipman, 2004). This highlights that timing and intuitive scheduling starting with a focus of bilateral negotiations in a multilateral context is significant.

Reiss (2006-07) cites a number of possible drawbacks of separate bilateral negotiations, especially where conflicting methods and goals are involved (Reiss, 2006-07). There is potentially a feeling of being ‘left out’, isolation and even resentment if there is any mistrust that your interests are not being bolstered in bilateral talks you are not directly involved in. One conundrum the US faces at the moment is the inevitable pressure from China and Russia it expects to face as a result of any bilateral talks directly with North Korea. This occurred previously in the run up to the 1994 Agreed Framework when South Korea and Japan expressed dissatisfaction at their positions being negotiated by the US. This drawback is significantly mitigated if these formed part of a larger multilateral framework where all interested and affected parties are aware they would get their own say at the table. It does mean however for example, if the six-party talks were organized in separate bilateral meetings there would need to be a total of 15 separate negotiations taking place. Despite its perceived complexity, this is essential to assuage stalling and if strategically timed and scheduled, maintains diplomatic momentum. This structure allows maximizing “windows of opportunity” as they arise and a series of quick wins add up to visible progress.

The reality is that multilateral negotiations are more complex. According to Aviel (2005), “Multilateral negotiation is characterized by multi-parties, multi-issues, multi-roles, and multi-values. The level of complexity is far greater in a multilateral conference than in bilateral diplomacy, as is the level of skill needed to manage that complexity” (Aviel, 2005). The exact nature of administering the larger multilateral framework, the what, how, when and who, is therefore crucial.

According to Reiss (2006-07), “Bilateral talks make it easier for Pyongyang to pit the allies against the US”. Despite this he goes on to conclude “None of these arguments is reason enough for the United States not to negotiate directly with North Korea …” (Reiss, 2006-07).

An example where conflicting bilateral goals and methods have been an impediment is in North Korea and South Korea talks running alongside North Korea and US talks. Whilst South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun wants to improve economic relations with counterparts in the North via his “Peace and Prosperity Policy”, Washington has tried to force North Korea to abandon its efforts to develop nuclear weapons through economic pressure. John S. Parks cites ‘Unveiling Divergences’ by looking at what priority the key players have for each of the key issues namely Nuclear Proliferation, Refugees, Ballistic Missiles and Korean Re-unification with interesting results. He mentions this conflicting bilateral diplomatic negotiation and economic policy when he discusses South Korea (Park, 2005).

It is argued that conducting these separate negotiations, with openness and adequate reporting, at different times in a previously agreed sequence as part of a multilateral framework, would have alleviated the chance of a fall out from conflicting goals and methods. Reporting formed a key component of the success of bilateral talks during US and North Korea negotiations that lead to the signing of the 1994 Framework agreement. China, South Korea and Japan were regularly being updated on progress made and numerous meetings between high ranking officials ensured conflicting interests did not stall the process. One added benefit of efficient reporting and transparency is that it significantly reduces constructivists’ perspective that multilateral agreements are the only form of negotiated agreements that bring legitimacy.

How could this approach be used to address the current crisis in North Korea?

North Korea has tested two nuclear weapons in 2009 and left a conundrum in the laps of the Obama administration. Following North Korea’s exit from the six-party framework and its uncertain pessimistic future, Niksch (2009) has suggested an approach similar to this essay’s argument, that is bilateral talks in a multilateral framework – and he also seeks to start to answer the previous question of the administration of the larger multilateral framework. He says “… offer North Korea bilateral negotiations with the United States outside of the six party framework. This likely would mean the end of the six party talks as an actual forum for negotiations, although it might continue as a nominal institution to ratify any final US-North Korean denuclearization agreement” (Niksch, 2009)

Very recently, North Korea has signaled its willingness to resume talks. In a tone comparable with this essay’s argument that bilateral discussions must pre-empt any multilateral talks, the North Korean leadership has indicated they would consider talks with China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and US in six-party talks, provided it had direct talks with Washington . The suggested way forward could be a series of bilateral meetings very similar to how in 2003 China institutionalized previous trilateral negotiations with a three stage hypothetical road map, when they hosted the first round of the six party talks. “The road map was also intended to provide an example of how structured multilateral negotiations can enable the parties to move beyond the nuclear deadlock” (Park, 2005). The use of the term ‘structured multilateral’ in essence corresponds to a series of bilateral negotiations in a multilateral scheduled framework or ‘multi-bilateral’ as mentioned earlier.

For almost 5 years, under the last US Republican administration of George W. Bush, the ‘hawks’ pursued a policy of multilateral negotiation through the six-party talks with a combination of diplomatic and economic pressure. The successes of this approach, which directly opposes the North Korean regimes consistent request for bilateral talks, have been limited. According to Reiss (2006-07), “Three years of Six-Party Talks have yielded little … the strategic positions of the other parties continue to erode” (Reiss, 2006-07). Supporters of direct bilateral negotiation argue that “… although the United States has limited coercive measures remaining, it has ample positive leverage for pushing forward on an agreement with North Korea … the multilateral coalition will be stronger if the United States tries a bilateral approach first, indicating its good faith to other parties” (Chanlett-Avery & Squassoni, 2006). With this model in mind, it could be suggested that a good start is for US, China and North Korea to engage in bilateral and trilateral talks initially. President Obama’s recent visit to Asia, particularly China is arguably the first step. The North Korea issue is at the heart of the Sinio-American relationship, which is a bilateral relationship that remains the key driver for any form of multilateral negotiations.


A combination of bilateral and multilateral negotiation strategies is the essence of progress in North Korea. The focus however must be on bilateral negotiations that pre-empt a framework that suggests “Thinking multilaterally, but acting bilaterally”. This reduces the impact of perceived weaknesses of bilateral approach such as less effective sanctions and conflicting goals and methods. The discussion around the effectiveness of multilateral sanctions, has suggested that as long as sanctions applied bilaterally are consistent and by a major trading partner, such as China in the case of North Korea, they will be as effective. As long as the overriding multilateral framework has transparency and is cloaked by efficient reporting , no issues of isolation, belligerence or lack of consensus would arise. This then leaves room to take advantage of the efficiency and focus of bilateral negotiations which has long been the demand and motivation of the North Korean regime. Lastly, following the recent nuclear tests this year, it is believed that President Obama’s recent trip to Asia is congruent with the main thesis of this essay and serves to be the first step bilaterally to be followed by subsequent bilateral negotiations before a wider multilateral framework.


• Acharya, A. (1999). Culture, Security, Multilaterism: The 'ASEAN Way' and Regional Order. In K. R. Krause, Culture and Security - Multilaterism, Arms Control and Security Building (p. 67). Abingdon, Oxon, Great Britain: Frank Cass.

• Aviel, J. F. (2005). The Evolution of Multillateral Diplomacy. In J. P. Muldoon Jr., J. F. Aviel, R. Reitano, & E. Sullivan, Multilateral Diplomacy and the United Nations today (p. 19). Cambridge, Mass: Westview Press.

• Berridge, G. R. (2005). Diplomacy Theory and Practice. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

• Boisard, M. A., & Chossudovsky, E. (1997). Multilateral Diplomacy: United Nations System at Geneva - A Working Guide. Brill.

• Carpenter, T. G., & Bandow, D. (2004). The Korean Conundrum - America's Troubled Relations with North and South Korea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

• Chanlett-Avery, E., & Squassoni, S. (2006). North Korea's Nuclear Test: Motivations, Implications, and U.S. Options. Congressional Research Service.

• Chipman, J. (2004). History: Disarmarment Diplomacy with North Korea. North Korea's Weapons Programmes: A Net Assesment (p. 11). London: An IISS Strategic Dossier.

• Heppell, J. M. (1997). Confidence-Building Measures: Bilateral versus Multilateral Approaches. In Y. W. Kihl, & P. Hayes, Peace and Security in Northeast Asia - The Nuclear Issue and the Korean Peninsula (p. 270). Armonk, New York: M E Sharpe.

• Howlett, D. (2008). Nuclear Proliferation. In J. Baylis, S. Smith, & P. Owens, The Globalization of World Politics (p. 393). New York: Oxford University Press Inc.

• Ikenberry, G. J. (2003, September). Is American Multilateralism in Decline? Perspectives on Politics , 533-550.

• Niksch, L. A. (2009). North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Development and Diplomacy. CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service.

• Park, J. S. (2005, Autumn). Inside Multilaterism: The Six-Party Talks. The Washington Quarterly , 28 (4), pp. 76-87.

• Reiss, M. B. (2006-07). A Nuclear-armed North Korea: Accepting the 'Unacceptable'? Survival , 48 (4), 102-103.

• Shen, D. (2009, October). Cooperative Denuclearization toward North Korea. The Washington Quarterly , p. 177.

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