North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (left) confers with Chinese leader Hu Jintao

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (left) confers with Chinese leader Hu Jintao

North Korea is a perennial security concern to the international community. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is the only state to have ever withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The North claimed in February 2005 to have manufactured nuclear weapons, and the following year it conducted its first nuclear test, asserting de facto membership in the nuclear club. In April 2009, Pyongyang overtly defied a UN Security Council resolution and undertook a failed attempt at a long-range missile launch, which was followed by its second nuclear detonation a month later. Based on U.S. estimates, the second test had an explosive yield greater than the first nuclear test of October 2006. In late 2010, satellite data indicated that North Korea possessed a uranium enrichment facility, and now a third nuclear test is potentially in the offing.

The provocative behavior of the North Korean regime has outraged even China, the North’s closest ally. North Korea has been highly insulated from international opinion, as China’s opposition to the nuclearization of North Korea never halted the North’s strides in nuclear buildup. The hard-liner stance of the United States only made matters worse. The U.S. relationship with North Korea has never been a normal one, as demonstrated by a history of failed diplomacy. Despite some intermittently more conciliatory approaches to North Korea, U.S. foreign policy toward the North has been one of deterrence and isolation, which has done little more than make the already dangerous nuclear hermit feel more endangered.

A look at the timeline of North Korea’s nuclear build-up suggests that virtually all of the North’s major steps in nuclear advancement occurred under conservative U.S. administrations. For example, the George W. Bush administration was staffed with North Korea hardliners who decided that it would be pathologically naïve to try to engage with North Korea or its tyrant leader. Bush put North Korea in the same category as Iraq and Iran in the “axis of evil.” In October 2002, the then-North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kang Suk-ju famously and caustically told James Kelly, the then-Assistant United States Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, that “if we disarm ourselves because of U.S. pressure, then we will become like Yugoslavia or Afghanistan’s Taliban, to be beaten to death.” Later, in April 2003, North Korea withdrew from the NPT and subsequently restarted its nuclear reactor. Despite the stated desires of both sides to resume the Six-Party Talks, North Korea maintains that any future diplomacy must acknowledge its declared status as a nuclear-armed state, thereby challenging a fundamental premise of the nuclear negotiations.

Wrong-headed U.S. Policy

This history of failed diplomacy illuminates many of the deficiencies of past U.S. foreign policy strategies. First of all, it is very wrong to think that North Korea regards China as its steadfast ally and the United States as its indefinite foe. Long-time North Korea watchers Robert Carlin and John Lewis have argued that this piece of received wisdom confuses North Korea’s short-term tactical goals with its broader strategic focus. North Korea wants, above all, a long-term, strategic relationship with the United States that it has pursued steadily since 1991. With a cold, hard calculation of history and the realities of geopolitics, the North Koreans feel the need to buffer the heavy influence that their neighbors already have over a small country sandwiched between China and Japan. In its 2010 New Year’s Day editorial in Pyongyang’s newspapers, North Korea expressed the desire for the establishment of a healthy U.S.-DPRK relationship.

The fundamental problem in guaranteeing the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the region today is putting an end to the hostile relationship between the DPRK and the United States. Our position to provide a solid peace regime on the Korean peninsula and realize denuclearization through dialogue and negotiations remains consistent.

The North’s open defiance of U.S. pressure and its determination to advance its nuclear program must be understood vis-à-vis the distinct North Korean ideology and the context within which it was formed. The North Korean system is highly Korea-centered in essence, with only temporary accommodations of foreigners that are dictated exclusively by either the exigencies of the moment or outright political expediency. A veteran of guerrilla wars against the Japanese in Manchuria, Kim Il-sung viewed himself as a survivor in a hostile world from the outset. After returning to Korea, Kim suspected residual loyalty to foreign forces within North Korea and trusted only his immediate family and his closest subordinates. To justify a Korea-first policy, Kim Il-sung introduced the concept of juche in the mid-1950s. Though often translated as “self-reliance,” juche is better characterized as “self-determination;” that is, North Korea is able to obtain what it needs from the international community, but nothing about North Korea is determined by any of the factors in the international environment. It then comes as no surprise that perhaps the most important lesson that North Korea has learned from the international community to date is the connection between the fall of Gaddafi and the abandonment of Libya’s nuclear weapons program, which has only served to strengthen North Korea’s resolve not to denuclearize.

Unless significant internal changes take place, North Korea is unlikely to denuclearize in the near future. Based on DPRK statements published by the Korean Central News Agency, North Korean diplomats believe that “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” would require the United States to disengage from its security commitments in Northeast Asia, remove its nuclear umbrella from South Korea, withdraw United States military forces and facilities from the peninsula, and develop a U.S.-DPRK “strategic partnership” paralleling the U.S.-ROK alliance. North Korean officials have also insisted that normalization, entailing a replacement of the armistice accords of July 1953 with a peace treaty, would have to precede denuclearization. In addition, the North also made clear that nuclear dismantlement would not be possible without the United States provision of the light water reactors initially pledged under the now defunct Agreed Framework. The United States is unlikely to agree to these preconditions. However, North Korea has shown signs in the past of modifying its bargaining positions in the interest of achieving negotiated agreements.

Toward Normalization?

The normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea is not impossible. According to DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman’s January 2009 Press Statement on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the North endorsed the principled position of “denuclearization through the normalization of relations, not the normalization of relations through denuclearization.” The statement concluded that “once U.S. nuclear threats are removed and the U.S. nuclear umbrella for South Korea disappears, we will not need nuclear weapons, either… [but] as long as the United States hostile policy toward the DPRK and nuclear threats are not fundamentally eliminated, we will never give up our nuclear weapons first, not even in a hundred years.”

To break the deadlock of negotiating with the North, the United States must take the lead in more actively engaging with North Korea in order to effectively guarantee the stability of Northeast Asia and prevent any transfer of nuclear weapons, technology, or materials to state or non-state actors. Waiting for North Korea to collapse is no substitute for an actual policy. North Korea is long-lived and is more robust than most people think. Despite the country’s defunct economy, extremely limited contact with the outside world, poverty, and famine, the regime endures. Furthermore, China will not likely maintain its monopoly on North Korea’s external relations given the North’s willingness to normalize its relations with the United States.

Active engagement does not have to happen within the framework of the Six-Party Talks, which has been a lovely idea on paper but largely ineffectual in practice. The United States may be better off by engaging directly with North Korea in delivering aid and building confidence. From a comparative perspective, North Korea’s adversarial politics and international isolation resemble that of Chinese politics and practices in the1960s when China shut itself to the rest of the world and adamantly pursued its defunct socialist policies. This points the way toward a possible détente relationship between the United States and North Korea. In the 1970s, United States extended an olive branch to China despite no signs that Beijing was committed to economic reforms, rapprochement with Taiwan, or a rejection of support for leftist national liberation movements overseas. There is hardly any reason not to pursue a similar path to engage with North Korea before the North commits itself to economic reforms or returns to denuclearization, as analyst John Feffer argues.

The recent two-day talks between the United States and North Korea were a good start, but it also shows that a diplomacy contingent upon denuclearization will not likely break the deadlock. Perhaps the pending leadership succession from Kim Jong-il to his heir apparent Kim Jong-eun provides a window of opportunity for the United States to effectively engage the North through a different strategy, and denuclearization can happen from there.

Shiran Shen is a senior honors political science student at Swarthmore College and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.