President Trump and Secretary Tillerson are at odds on diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK). Secretary Tillerson emphasized that the U.S. has “three channels open to Pyongyang,” and that the two sides are talking. President Trump says the secretary is “wasting his time,” causing other officials to reconcile the comments by stating that the U.S. was getting impatient as lines of communication had been open for months. Regardless of the inconsistent messaging, these comments from Secretary Tillerson are a significant signal that reveals overlooked opportunities for a ‘humanitarian channel’ of engagement between the two countries.
Earlier this summer, the administration also acknowledged that the direct line of communication, which facilitated the release of imprisoned UVA student Otto Warmbier, remained open after his return. The direct line between the DPRK ambassador to the UN Pak Song II and the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun is the only confirmed direct channel of communication between the two countries. However, the implication of Tillerson’s comments is that he may be counting indirect or unofficial lines of communication as ‘channels.’ These indirect lines likely include communication between former U.S. officials or veterans of the U.S. foreign policy corps and their North Korean contacts.
What Tillerson may not have included are those closer to the ground, such as humanitarian organizations that often serve as telegraphing instruments vis-a-vis the layers of permissions, approvals, and negotiating that come with the territory of U.S. organizations operating in the DPRK. Even including this oft-overlooked humanitarian link in Tillerson’s tally, the number of channels are not much more than three. And that’s a serious problem. Given the current climate of threats and potential for miscalculation between the U.S. and DPRK, every last fiber in the diplomatic cable matters.
With so little communication and such high stakes, Washington ignores the humanitarian channel to the DPRK at its own peril. Currently operating assistance programs are having enormous impacts on the lives of ordinary North Koreans, and these programs often unearth viable opportunities in bilateral relations.
For instance, I work for the American Friends Service Committee, an organization that currently has an agricultural program that is helping to improve food security for up to 72,000 North Koreans. Although this impact alone is a sufficient case for humanitarian work, the on-the-ground and consistent nature of these programs creates a space in which U.S. and North Korean organizations can identify opportunities for engagement.
In 2016, participants on an AFSC delegation were able to assess the feasibility of the U.S. government conducting exchange programs with the DPRK. In the past, such exchange programs have served as a precursor to rapprochements between the U.S. and adversaries such as China, the USSR, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cuba, and Iran. The assessment found that not only are government-sponsored exchanges between the U.S. and DPRK legally and logistically possible, they are one of the lowest-risk, highest-yield tools the U.S. has in its diplomatic toolkit. Existing programs such as the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) offer existing mechanisms to bring North Koreans to the US. Even Trump’s travel ban—which now includes the DPRK—makes carveouts for participants in government-sponsored exchange programs. And in 2004, Congress made funds available to the State Department for conducting such exchanges with the DPRK—a provision that stands today.
These humanitarian channels are especially important because the channels that Tillerson did count likely suffer from chronic periods of inactivity, and thus the conversation is likely to be monopolized by only the largest issues. The benefit of the humanitarian channel is that the consistent contact allows for basic trust, creative problem-solving, and rich conversations between Americans and North Koreans that, in this author’s experience, can cover everything from comparing high scores on Temple Run (a popular game on smartphones) to hypothetical foreign policy proposals. These conversations lead to new opportunities, and US diplomats rarely have the same exposure to North Koreans as does the average U.S. aid worker who regularly goes to the DPRK.
However, it should not be left to civil society alone to capitalize on these types of opportunities. The U.S. government also has roles and obligations in the humanitarian realm. For example, one of the U.S. obligations that presents a face-saving step to de-escalate tensions is the repatriation of remains from over 5,000 U.S. service members who served in the Korean War and whose current resting place is still the DPRK. Operations to repatriate remains were successful in the past, but the U.S. ceased operations in 2005. The DPRK is interested in handing over at least 120 sets of remains to a third party if the U.S. declares the transfer a “humanitarian gesture.”
Although the U.S. government has not accepted the North Korean offer to repatriate 120 US service people, the offer is still essentially on the table. Domestically speaking, bringing home U.S. service people is a bipartisan slam dunk that impacts countless districts. This is a prime case where the humanitarian approach provides honest opportunity. Yet, the issue is hardly discussed by U.S. officials and punditry.
Divided Korean families is another example of a U.S. obligation and a humanitarian channel waiting to be utilized. Following the Korean War, over 100,000 divided Korean families came to the U.S. Estimates suggest that several thousand of those families are still living, and Korean American organizations have reported interest from the community to reunite with loved ones. Facilitating such reunions between these families is well within the capabilities of the U.S. or DPRK, and reunions would be another positive step to de-escalate tensions. The U.S. has obligations under the Geneva Conventions to, at the bare minimum, attempt to facilitate communication between these families. This should be cause alone for the U.S. to prioritize the issue.
Several officials from this administration have said that when it comes to North Korea ‘all options are on the table.’ However, the full suite of promising options has yet to be considered in good faith. These humanitarian channels are not soft-power measures. They are concrete steps that could potentially dial back a very dangerous situation with a simple humanitarian gesture. In other words, Washington must begin to properly count the humanitarians when taking roll call for open channels, or it will continue to miss out on one of the most promising aspects of the bilateral relationship.