University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Stephen W. Bosworth

I have been dealing with North Korea since the 1990s, when we tried to implement the Agreed Framework, and later when I served as the U.S. Ambassador in Seoul. When I returned to active service as the Special Representative to North Korea in 2009-2011, I observed fundamental differences between what it was like trying to deal with the nuclear issue in the 1990s and what it is like now.

The most significant difference is that North Korea can now claim, with some degree of credibility, that it possesses nuclear weapons. Pyongyang has not said how many weapons it has or whether it can deliver them, but it undoubtedly has nuclear weapons. This has changed the way we try to deal with the North and how other countries in the region try to deal with them.


The other major difference between the 1990s and now is the changed regional context. Back then, we could go for a long time without thinking very seriously about China and its relationship with North Korea or about China’s role in trying to resolve the nuclear threat.

South Korea’s role in the region has expanded, and China now plays a pivotal role in efforts to resolve the nuclear threat.

Today, China’s role is pivotal, and South Korea has much more sway over our negotiating posture and strategy now than it did in the mid-1990s. South Korea has established various lines of communication into the North and has greater knowledge of the North. In addition, South Korea’s role in the region has expanded and become more important for the United States. China’s rise has made it more necessary than ever for the United States to maintain a strong, staunch ally in South Korea.

All of this has made the coordination process with our allies and partners much more complicated and at the same time much more important. The thought that we might openly adopt a position different from that of South Korea is no longer tenable, whereas in the 1990s, if truth be told, we leaned very hard on South Korea to support various initiatives that we were pursuing vis-à-vis the Agreed Framework and its implementation.


I continue to be an advocate of engagement with the North, despite the difficulties of the last few years, but a measured and calculated form of engagement. I think it is important that we have some connection to North Korea. We do not want the North to be wandering around without an understanding of where the United States and other countries in the region stand in terms of their nuclear program and overall relations.

The United States is not well suited for managing nuance and ambiguity, particularly with a regime as fundamentally difficult as North Korea.

I am very aware of how difficult engagement is, particularly for the United States. Some of that is a function of our own foreign policy and political culture. Engagement with North Korea means managing instability and ambiguity. As a country, we are not well suited for that. We like clear-cut outcomes. We don’t deal very effectively with nuance and ambiguity, particularly over an extended period of time, particularly with a regime as fundamentally difficult as North Korea.


Despite the death of Kim Jong Il and the rise of Kim Jong Un, I do not expect that much will change. The new leader is not in a position to make decisions or take initiative on his own. He will be the new face on an old regime that remains the same as before. The regime needs him, but he also needs the regime, especially the senior military and party officials and his own family members. They all have a great stake in hanging together, because if they don’t, the likelihood is they will all hang separately.

Some in this country believe that if China only wanted to, it could solve this problem for us. It could just tell North Korea not to have nuclear weapons. This is a gross over-simplification. China’s interests in North Korea are complex and potentially contradictory. China does not want North Korea to be a permanent nuclear weapon state, but it also does not want to see North Korea collapse.


I think we’ve got to figure out a way to give North Korea an increased stake in regional stability. The North needs to be able to derive some long-term benefits from improving its relations with other countries, particularly South Korea, Japan, and the United States. In the end the North Koreans have to see some virtue in moving forward on all the issues, including denuclearization.

Ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth, U.S. Special Representative to North Korea from 2009 through October 2011, is dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University