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01 February 2021

'Poor choices' behind state's failure to normalise diplomatic relations

North Korea’s “poor choice of bargaining tactics” are a key reason why it has failed in its bid to normalise diplomatic relations with the United States, according to a King’s College London academic.

Map North and South Korea
North Korea has long-pursued improve diplomatic relations with the US.

Dr Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a member of the Department of European and International Studies, said Pyongyang’s preference for brinkmanship over other less-confrontational avenues in its dealings with the US had prevented the secretive state from achieving its goal.

Writing in the National Bureau of Asian Research, Dr Pacheco Pardo said: “Normalisation of diplomatic relations with the US is a long-term North Korean foreign policy goal, dating back to 1974.

“Indeed, the four US presidents between 1992 and 2019 reached agreements with North Korea making explicit reference to diplomatic normalisation. North Korea, however, has failed in its goal even as other communist countries and nuclear powers that are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have established—or maintained—diplomatic relations with the U.S.

“A key reason behind this failure is Pyongyang’s poor choice of bargaining tactics to negotiate with Washington. As a weak power negotiating with a more powerful counterpart, North Korea can choose whether to soft balance or bandwagon, whether to use brinkmanship, and whether to engage with multilateral regimes.

“Informed by its political culture, North Korea’s most common choices have included a weak commitment to soft balancing, including with South Korea; a decisive use of brinkmanship; and a rejection of international regimes. These choices have antagonised successive US administrations, preventing North Korea from achieving diplomatic normalization.”

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Head of the Department of European & International Studies and Professor of International Relations