Cover: Engagement with North Korea

Engagement with North Korea

A Portfolio-Based Approach to Diplomacy

Published Oct 26, 2020

by Rafiq Dossani


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대북 개입정책: 외교에 대한 포트폴리오 기반 접근법

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Research Questions

  1. Do opportunities for conflict resolution and consensus-building between North Korea and the United States still exist in the current political atmosphere?
  2. Where did past agreements between the United States and North Korea fail, and how can future agreements address those failures?

Following the failure of recent efforts by the United States to engage North Korea in denuclearization negotiations, the author proposed and tested an approach to negotiations, called the portfolio method, that addresses the reasons for past failures in an effort to develop action plans that will successfully engage all sides. The elements of the portfolio method are (1) the inclusion of countries with national interests that overlap those of the United States and North Korea, (2) prior agreement on the goals of negotiation between the negotiating parties, (3) the inclusion of primarily hard commitments in agreements, (4) the incorporation of the preferences of in-country stakeholders, (5) the linking of multiple areas of negotiation, and (6) trust-building mechanisms.

To test the portfolio method, the author assembled a team of experts, who went through the steps for portfolio creation with actual cases using the portfolio method and provided a review. The author used the method of Track II dialogue to assemble experts who are nonstate actors with differing national interests to investigate how breakdowns in negotiations can be addressed.

The action plans were first reviewed for the support they would receive from in-country stakeholders. Second, experts discussed combinations of action plans that would meet the negotiation goals. Using this discussion, experts proposed three portfolios with different levels of risk, trade-offs, and ongoing commitments. Third, the expert panel identified the roles that stakeholder countries could play with regard to ensuring that the agreements succeed.

Key Findings

  • In his assessment of past failures, the author identified three principal reasons for failure that would need to be addressed in future negotiations: (1) disagreements on the goals of negotiations, (2) inadequate domestic and international support (both state and nonstate), and (3) the failure to use trust-building mechanisms.
  • The expert panel resulted in the recommendation of three portfolios, each containing diplomatic, economic, and security components. The expert panel also recommended roles that each stakeholder country (the United States, China, North Korea, and South Korea) would play in the implementation of the agreement.
  • The expert dialogue was generally supportive of the portfolio method and its key elements because it made explicit the condition that official negotiations on action plans must be based on a pre-agreed framework of goals and other elements. The experts also welcomed the insights that considering trade-offs brought to the analysis, such as recognizing a country's bargaining power.

This research was sponsored by the Korea Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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