Why the U.S. Should Engage North Korea Right Now


Engaging North Korea should not be exclusively about denuclearization. It should be about enhancing security for all parties in the Korean peninsula, such that nuclear weapons become irrelevant. (Photo: Roman Harak / Flickr)

In recent weeks, North Korea has sent the usual mix of signals about its strategic intentions on the Korean peninsula.

In July it carried out a ballistic missile test in the East Sea (Sea of Japan), in violation of UN resolutions. It also threatened retaliation—including a nuclear strike on the White House—over the annual U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) military exercises, which often involve as many as half a million soldiers. Pyongyang has called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to deal with the threat it believes the exercises pose—a threat that U.S. officials of course dismissed.

But it’s not all aggression. Perhaps in response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul in early July, in defiance of presumed protocol that would have called for him to visit Pyongyang first, North Korea called on the South to join it in renewed efforts at national reunification. Speculation is rife in Seoul that Kim Jong-un will finally visit China this year.

U.S. relations with North Korea have been pushed into the background by events in the Middle East. But the so-called “North Korea nuclear issue”—“so-called” because the larger issue, which involves the interests of several countries, is security and strategic stability on the Korean peninsula—remains unresolved and potentially dangerous.

For a number of years, I and many other specialists on North Korea have urged the United States and other governments to carry out genuine engagement with that country. Through various confrontations over nuclear weapon and missile tests, name-calling, and on-again off-again talks in both multilateral and bilateral settings, we have clung to the view that only engagement holds out hope of settling the nuclear issue (or at least stopping North Korea’s further production of nuclear weapons) and preserving meaningful access to the beleaguered North Korean people.

Making the case for engagement is especially challenging now, for several reasons. First is the draconian nature of the Kim dynasty’s rule. Although many sources have described repression in North Korea, the execution of Jang Song-thaek and others in December 2013 and the report in February 2014 of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea brought the brutality of the regime front and center. The report presents a searing indictment of the regime’s widespread and systematic repression of its citizens: the expansive gulag, the numerous stories of torture and killings, the arbitrary arrests, the climate of fear.

In the current political climate in the United States, the North Korean leadership’s crimes against its own people make the case for engagement especially unpalatable in the White House and in Congress. For the Obama administration to engage Iran is one thing—and even there it faces stern opposition at home—but North Korea lacks the constituency Iran has in the United States for promoting talks and arranging a new package deal.

Key U.S. allies would also have reservations about a robust engagement of the North. Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is eager to carry out a constitutional revision that would legitimize new military missions for the officially pacifist country, would object to rewarding a country that still may hold Japanese abductees and poses a missile threat to Japan. The Park Geun-hye administration in Seoul would probably insist on prior North Korean agreement to international inspection and verification of its nuclear enrichment and missile programs before endorsing engagement.

Yet there are a number of powerful reasons for the United States to embrace engagement with North Korea. As long as engagement translates into regime survival, Pyongyang is interested in negotiating a concrete deal with the United States. The chances for this bilateral engagement would be even greater if the talks are embedded in a multilateral framework that builds on the Six-Party Talks of the past.

What Engagement Should Mean

“Engaging” and “engagement” are much used, and much abused, terms. Most often, they are synonyms for contact or involvement, nothing more. So let me be clear on definitions, since when I propose that the United States engage North Korea, I have a consistent strategy in mind.

By engagement I mean a process that involves reaching out to an adversary in ways that may catalyze new directions forpolicy. The purpose of engagement, therefore, is to create an environment conducive to policy change on both sides by focusing on joint (as well as unilateral and multilateral) actions that will move the parties away from destructive conflict.

To be effective, however, engagement should be undertaken strategically—as a calculated use of incentives with expectation of mutual rewards, namely in security and peace. And it should be undertaken in a spirit of mutual respect and with due regard for sensitivity in language and action.

In April, David Sanger reported in the New York Times that President Obama’s North Korea specialists feel “stuck” on where to go next with North Korea. They believe they have tried or explored every option for eliminating its nuclear weapons, only to watch as Kim Jong-un invests more in weapon and missile refinement and new strategies (such as mobile missile launchers) for maintaining secrecy. If Sanger is correct, Obama’s advisers accept the failure of “strategic patience.”

But what they haven’t tried is a true engagement strategy. “Strategic patience” does not amount to an engagement strategy, any more than ordinary diplomatic contact at the UN or elsewhere. One finds frequent official reference to “engaging” North Korea—for example, by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns on April 8.

However, what Washington offers is not engagement but sticks and carrots: If North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, the United States will have dialogue with it. North Korean denuclearization is the U.S. price for deeper contact, which may or may not amount to serious engagement. Until North Korea yields on nuclear weapons, then, the United States will continue seeking to contain and undermine it through sanctions, military maneuvers, and alliance pressure. In Burns’ words, “While we maintain our pressure on North Korea, we also continue testing the potential for diplomacy.”

Engaging North Korea should not be exclusively about North Korean denuclearization. It should be about enhancing security for all parties with interests in the Korean peninsula, such that nuclear weapons become irrelevant and useless for strategic or political purposes.

To get to that conclusion requires serious thinking about three questions: First, why are alternatives to current policy necessary and urgent, since that policy has clearly failed to change North Korean behavior or priorities? Second, why would engagement be in North Korea’s interest? Third, what incentives might prompt North Korea to stop its nuclear weapon and missile programs, and reopen the country to international inspection?

In short, we must ask, as Walter C. Clemens, Jr. has asked in his book: How do we get to yes with North Korea?

Why Engagement?

The case for persisting in finding engagement opportunities with North Korea comes down to seven considerations.

First, North Korea has at least several nuclear weapons and is now widely rumored to be restarting production of more. More nukes can only add to strategic instability and the danger of a terrible miscalculation. The longer the United States persists in making any form of engagement dependent on North Korea’s denuclearization, the more determined North Korea will be to test and refine its nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.

Second, every time North Korean leaders feel threatened or ignored, they undertake a weapons test or other provocative action. U.S.-ROK military exercises and strengthened defense ties with South Korea and Japan may seem like standard procedures to us; but to the North Koreans, they are a reminder of their weakness and vulnerability. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry’s reminder in 1999, after visiting the North as a special emissary of President Clinton, remains relevant: “We do not think of ourselves as a threat to North Korea, but I fully believe that they consider us a threat to them and, therefore, they see this missile [program] as a means of deterrence.”

That is why U.S. security assurances to North Korea are so essential. When two prominent Americans visited Pyongyang in November 2002, they received a written personal message from Kim Jong-il to President George W. Bush that said: “If the United States recognizes our sovereignty and assures nonaggression, it is our view that we should be able to find a way to resolve the nuclear issue in compliance with the demands of a new century. … If the United States makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly.” That position has been restated a number of times since.

Third, China’s view of North Korea has changed. It has come to regard the Kim regime as a strategic liability, though not to the extent of dumping it altogether or consistently carrying out UN-approved sanctions. Numerous Chinese commentaries of the last few years display impatience and irritation with North Korea, seeing it as a potential threat to China’s own security. China’s changed attitude presents an opportunity for creative multilateral diplomacy, so long as we finally jettison the notion that China holds the key to forcing changes in Pyongyang’s behavior. (Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai, for instance, complained about Washington’s demands that his country do more to pressure Pyongyang into halting its atomic arms development or contend with U.S. repercussions for not doing so.)

Fourth, as the former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung argued in crafting his “Sunshine policy,” greater security for the North actually promotes greater security for the South. Rather than continue to rely exclusively on alliance with the United States, Kim proposed “to lead North Korea down a path toward peace, reform, and openness through reconciliation, interaction and co-operation with the South.” Military deterrence and “non-tolerance of military threat or armed provocation by North Korea,” Chung-in Moon explains in his definitive study of the Sunshine policy, were also part of Kim’s approach. But Kim was determined to avoid giving the North any reason to believe that South Korea was out to absorb or threaten it.

Fifth, abandoning engagement strengthens North Korea’s military and forecloses opportunities for credible dialogue with leaders there who want to reduce tensions and gain concessions from the United States and others. As Kim Jong-il reportedly told Madeleine Albright in October 2000, if North Korea could get the same kinds of security assurances that Deng Xiaoping got in the 1970s, “he would be able to convince his military that the United States was no longer a threat and then be in a position to refocus his country’s resources.” There is no reason to think Kim Jong-un does not possess similar authority.

Sixth, engagement increases opportunities for direct contact with the North Korean people and lower-level officials. We have many concrete examples of how appreciative Koreans are when they receive meaningful help, such as in medical supplies and training, wind and solar power technology, and foreign-financed fisheries, apple orchards, and scientific and academic exchanges. Focusing on young people, as for example the Pyongyang Project does, is especially important. Someday, the work of NGOs may transform North Korea’s political system and facilitate peaceful Korean unification. That is why a new U.S. approach to North Korea based on an engagement strategy is so vital. It would provide a framework of support for the critical projects that NGOs carry out.

Seventh, we have to accept that the Kim regime is not going to go away. Critics of engagement will argue that since the Jang execution, regime stability in North Korea is uncertain, and the usefulness of talking with Kim Jong-un may be doubted. Even gaining a hearing in Pyongyang is proving very difficult, as the State Department has discovered in trying to send an emissary there to free two U.S. citizens who have been jailed for espionage. But by every indication Kim Jong-un remains firmly in command, and the cyclical expectations in Washington that the regime will either self-destruct or wither away under outside pressure seem largely to be wishful thinking.

Consider the likely scenario if the United States and its allies reject engagement and continue the approach of insisting that North Korea must first eliminate its nuclear option before serious negotiations can get underway. It will embolden the most hawkish elements in the North Korean leadership, providing them with evidence that more nukes provide the only real security against an untrustworthy America. Influential figures in South Korea and Japan will argue that the time has come to have their own nuclear weapons. North Korea will carry out more nuclear and missile tests, and will keep selling weapons components to militant groups and governments. It will create armed incidents with the ROK that will compel a violent response. It will crack down even harder on its population in search of “enemies of the state” who have cell phones or listen to South Korean broadcasts. It will bar or greatly limit NGO activities even if they offer valuable assistance.

North Korea is just as tired of talk for talk’s sake as the United States is. It too won’t “buy the same horse twice.” The challenge, however, is not about buying but about selling: How to reach agreement on the “horse’s” fair selling price. For Pyongyang, that means no denuclearization without prior compensating incentives. In other words, Pyongyang must see engagement as strengthening regime and state survival.

North Korea would therefore most likely be interested in a U.S. (or U.S.-South Korean) proposal that would provide the following. It would offer some assurance against U.S. designs to bring about regime change. It would enhance North Korea’s legitimacy as an independent socialist state—meaning U.S. diplomatic recognition in particular—thus also preventing absorption by the South. It would provide international guarantees of North Korea’s security and ease and eventually end sanctions. It would at worst warehouse the North’s nuclear weapons until the terms of a new agreement are largely fulfilled, thus helping satisfy the DPRK’s military. It would pave the way for long-term development assistance, increased trade and investment, and short-term food and fuel aid, thus also reducing dependence on China. And it would eliminate the nuclear-weapon option for South Korea and Japan.

Embedding Engagement in Regional Security

Multilateral diplomacy, both among governments and Track II and III efforts, can help increase the likelihood of the long-term success of bilateral engagement. The first step would be the revival of six-party talks without preconditions and with faithfulness to previous six-party and North-South Korea joint declarations—in particular, the principle contained in the September 2005 Joint Statement of “commitment for commitment, action for action.”

At a new round of talks, the United States and its partners should present a package that, in return for verifiable steps to neutralize if not eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, provides the North with security assurances, a proposal for ending the Korean War and signing a nonaggression pact with big-power guarantees (with China on board), and meaningful economic assistance from both NGOs and governments.

By replacing threats with high-level direct dialogue, negotiators can also indicate sensitivity to issues of face and status. As two distinguished South Korean experts on North Korea have written, one serious deficiency of most Western writing on the DPRK is that it completely ignores its “obsession” with “supreme dignity” and national pride. Saving face and gaining status recognition are thus quite important explanations of the North’s provocative behavior and search for a deterrent. Finding ways to isolate and punish Pyongyang may seem perfectly logical responses to its missile and nuclear tests and other actions, but they are not likely to bring it to the table for serious talks. On the other hand, if U.S. diplomats were to place denuclearization in the context of fulfilling Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s “last wishes,” that might be the kind of face-saving approach that would appeal to Kim Jong-un.

An alternative to a return to the Six-Party Talks would be the creation of a Northeast Asia Security Dialogue Mechanism (NEASDM). Such a group was anticipated in the final statements of the Six-Party Talks, and South Korea’s President Park has proposed a similar peace initiative. In the absence of honest brokers for disputes in Northeast Asia, the NEASDM can function as a “circuit breaker,” able to interrupt patterns of escalating confrontation when tensions in the region increase—as they are now.

But the NEASDM would not focus exclusively on North Korean denuclearization. It would be open to a wide range of issues related to security in the broadest sense, such as environmental, labor, poverty, and public health problems. It would develop a code of conduct to govern territorial and boundary disputes; military budget transparency, weapons transfers, and deployments. It would offer measures to combat terrorism and piracy and explore the creation of a nuclear-weapon free zone (NWFZ) in all or part of Northeast Asia. And it would develop ways to support confidence building and trust in the dialogue process itself.

Normalization of relations among all six countries should be a priority; full recognition of the DPRK by the United States and Japan costs nothing but is an important incentive for meaningful North Korean participation.

All six countries in the Six-Party Talks should be members, but no others, although other countries or organizations might be invited to participate for a specific session. If North Korea rejects membership,the group should nevertheless go on with its work. Second, the NEASDM should be institutionalized, perhaps situated in Beijing, with a commitment to meet several times a year at regular intervals regardless of the state of affairs in the region—but with the provision that any of the parties can convene a meeting in a crisis. Third, there should be an understanding among the member-states that the NEASDM meets whether or not all parties are willing to participate so that a boycott by one party cannot prevent the group from meeting. Fourth, the NEASDM’s agenda should be unrestricted; the members should be prepared to discuss any issue that any one of them believes is important.

A NEASDM would bring decided advantages to each party. For example, North Korea would gain diplomatic recognition (and thus added legitimacy), access to long-term economic development assistance, and the potential for security guarantees by the major powers sufficient for it to eliminateits nuclear weapons, if not immediately then later. But all other parties would also gain from security and stability on the Korean peninsula. And a successful regional institution would provide a much-needed boost to development of a regional identity.

Setting conditions for acceptance of North Korea into the “community of nations” has not worked and will not work—certainly not with a militantly nationalist leadership that is beset by profound economic problems at home and abroad has only faithless friends and implacable enemies. To be sure, engagement of the North does not guarantee its good behavior or friction-free interaction. But we should seriously explore what North Korean officials have long insisted: that if the United States abandons its “hostile policy,” the nuclear issue and much else can be resolved. We should test that view, one step—and one incentive—at a time.

Mel Gurtov is professor emeritus of political science at Portland State University, editor-in-chief of Asian Perspective, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. His latest book is Will This Be China’s Century? A Skeptic’s View (Lynne Rienner, 2013). He writes a foreign affairs blog, In the Human Interest