Searching for Success in Failure: A Case for "Strategic Trust" in U.S.-North Korean Nuclear Negotiations

Embargo until
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Johns Hopkins University
In the absence of U.S. policy options that can counter the North Korean nuclear threat without risking war or approaches that can pressure the regime to surrender its strategic capabilities via sanctions or non-engagement, a re-examination of the negotiation option seems warranted. Given that nuclear negotiations, however, have repeatedly failed since the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework, identifying an underlying reason for the series of failures is critical if parties seek to understand possible levers of influence in future negotiations. Yet the lack of consensus within the academic community in identifying one primary reason for failure merited a review of U.S. and North Korean statements, which appeared to attribute responsibility to a perceived lack of trust. Literature, however, shows that trust is not a requirement for cooperation, and actors’ rational calculations of political interests and risks, in fact, serve as the key factor in leading parties to cooperate. As a result, cooperation results as part of a strategic decision to engage—or rather, through the existence of what is termed “strategic trust” in this thesis. The presence of strategic trust is determined by parties’ ability to demonstrate the following: 1) an understanding of the other sides’ interests and motivation to address them through a zone of possible agreement (ZOPA), 2) capacity to follow through on commitments, and 3) willingness to engage and commit to the process. Using qualitative analysis, the presence or absence of strategic trust is assessed in three examples of nuclear negotiations with North Korea: 1) the Agreed Framework process, 2) the Six Party Talks, and 3) the U.S.-North Korean summits. While parties’ creation of a ZOPA in 1994 led to a signed agreement, the insufficiency of this first strategic trust element alone in sustaining the process through the implementation phase without the presence of the remaining two strategic trust components contributed to the eventual collapse of the Agreed Framework. Findings further indicate that strategic trust was absent over a series of negotiations over time, hindering prospects for cooperation.
North Korea, nuclear negotiations, strategic trust