Image: iStock
Image: iStock

Author’s note: The below article originally appeared this past April on Since then, a new South Korean administration has come to power with a North Korea engagement agenda that will be the subject of a highly-anticipated, two-day White House summit later this month, the first meeting between the new South Korean president and President Donald Trump. One of the options President Moon Jae-in’s team is considering is a possible framework for negotiations that align in key respects with the strategy I had proposed in the following essay. Given the nuclear stakes, and leaving aside the deplorable tragedy of the Otto Warmbier case and the ethics of so-called cultural engagement, it would be derelict for the United States and South Korea to not give high-level, narrowly-tailored preemptive engagement one final opportunity, especially since North Korea may be closer to weaponized ICBM breakout than analysts have heretofore predicted. The alternative is unthinkable, and inaction would be unforgivable.

The state of United States-North Korea affairs is at its nadir. North Korea bears full blame for bringing tensions in the region to a point where many analysts are now seriously discussing nuclear war scenarios, given the retaliatory blowback likely to result from preemption (were the US to pursue that route) or a North Korean first-strike miscalculation. The path of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea since the early 1990s is strewn with the carcasses of failed deals obliterated by Pyongyang’s persistent abrogation of its promises and responsibilities.

For the Kim regime, mendacity and treachery not only characterize its negotiating strategy but define its very nature. Still, the sordid character of this gangster government does not relieve the US and its allies of the responsibility of confronting with creativity and resolve the stark reality that North Korea is in full-speed pursuit of a nuclear weapons delivery capability, the trajectory of which will soon touch the US homeland. Unfortunately, prospects for outside-the-box thinking on US-North Korea foreign policy continue to be undermined by ideological factionalism in policy circles and a consensus towards incrementalism inside the US national security bureaucracy.

The Trump administration’s recent contradictory statements regarding its willingness to talk to the North Korean regime highlight a longstanding dichotomy in US-North Korea foreign policy. North Korea watchers have been mired in a perennial internecine squabble between sanctions-only hawks and engagement doves. The sanctions crowd argues that trying to engage the Kim regime directly has been a fool’s errand and that to continue pushing for talks is naïve, at best, and accommodationist, at worst. The engagement camp asserts that sanctions haven’t worked to stymie North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and compounding them may only spur it to perfect its nuclear capability even faster.

If we agree that the prospect of North Korea achieving nuclear invincibility is unacceptable, then progress towards a more effective policy must begin by first acknowledging that the choice between sanctions and engagement cannot be binary

If we agree that the prospect of North Korea achieving nuclear invincibility is unacceptable, then progress towards a more effective policy must begin by first acknowledging that the choice between sanctions and engagement cannot be binary. Each strategy must complement the other.

At present, it seems that the sanctions faction has won the argument with the White House, notwithstanding the administration’s recent policy schizophrenia. The National Security Council announced the conclusion of its North Korea policy review, with increased and targeted sanctions, enlistment of China’s considerable leverage (including the threat overhang of secondary sanctions), and reinforced military deterrence appearing to be the Trump administration’s proposed policy tripod.

Administration officials, however, may find themselves hard-pressed to explain how the nascent White House policy is anything more than an incremental evolution of the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” doctrine, leaving aside the recent amped-up saber-rattling. Bold is not exactly the description that comes to mind in assessing the administration’s new proposals, especially in light of Trump’s campaign braggadocio about his willingness to talk to Kim Jong Un.

A robust sanctions regime, of course, must always be an indispensable component in our dealings with the Kim regime, inasmuch as North Korea, itself, purports to be a member of the international community and at least pays lip service to notions of international norms of behavior. Minimizing the importance of sanctions enforcement delegitimizes the very concept of an international order and the rule of law.

There is ample evidence, in fact, that sanctions have made it increasingly difficult for North Korea to efficiently maneuver in the international sphere and maintain the pace of nuclear weapons development to which it aspires. Do those on the engagement side who argue that expanding sanctions will only agitate Pyongyang into speeding up its nuclear pursuits think decreasing the pressure will cause the regime to slow down its efforts? The fact that North Korea must resort to increasingly byzantine subterfuge to support its illicit networks shows sanctions are having an impact.

The engagement camp carries a heavier burden in advocating for direct talks because the regime with whom they seek engagement has always found new ways to define duplicity down. If one’s negotiating partner is predisposed to lie and cheat, isn’t engagement a complete waste of time? The answer to that question depends on what we resolve to achieve in the near term.

If we sequence our denuclearization policy to make our interim goal a moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, then attempting to talk to the regime – from a position of strength and not “Sunshine” servility – may hold some chance of easing the crisis in the region. After all, it is the North that has long proposed a freeze on its nuclear program, in exchange for a halt to joint US-South Korea military exercises and commencement of peace negotiations. Ironically, the parameters of Pyongyang’s offer provide a potential roadmap to one day realizing North Korea’s complete denuclearization and ultimate demise.

In January 2016, the North Korean Foreign Ministry put out the following statement: “Still valid are all proposals for preserving peace and stability on the peninsula and in Northeast Asia including the ones for ceasing our nuclear test and the conclusion of a peace treaty in return for US halt to joint military exercises.” Granted, assessing the trustworthiness of any pronouncement coming out of Pyongyang is akin to trying to embrace the waves of the ocean. That said, it is notable that North Korea has consistently proposed peace talks with the US since the early 1970s.

Indeed, a peace treaty is the vehicle through which North Korea envisions achieving its ideological fantasy of reunification of the peninsula under its terms. In fact, the term “reunification” is mentioned no less than six times in just the preamble of its constitution. The same constitution proudly declares North Korea to be a “nuclear-armed state” – food for thought for those who think Pyongyang would ever accept denuclearization, much less complete dismantlement, as a pre-condition to any formal dialogue under the current geopolitical dynamic.

With this history in mind, Pyongyang’s proffer could potentially serve as a basis for discussions in which the US would occupy the negotiation high ground since it is North Korea that is on record calling for them. And despite what the “China is key” Greek chorus relentlessly trumpets in Op-Ed echo chambers or around news show roundtables, such engagement does not require China’s influence or intercession. Given the nuclear stakes, it is at least worth the effort to try and leverage – for our interests – Kim Jong-un’s narcissistic penchant for the grand gesture, while rejecting the fallacious and dismissive equivalence critics will draw between engagement and appeasement.

In 1994, the US and North Korea achieved a similar mutual freeze arrangement under the Agreed Framework, though the formal swap was fuel oil and light-water reactor technology in exchange for Pyongyang’s halting of its plutonium program and its promise to eventually dismantle it. The suspension of Team Spirit joint military exercises was actually a confidence-building measure instituted earlier in the process by then-president Bill Clinton to encourage further negotiations on an agreement. North Korea ended up shuttering its plutonium development for about eight years. Yes, the regime was later found to be engaging in a secret uranium enrichment program, but it is inarguable that the freeze on North Korea’s plutonium effort bought us an eight-year hiatus on its development of nuclear bombs.

What the history of the Agreed Framework demonstrates – however imperfectly – is that there is strategic utility in calibrating our short-term expectations in the service of overarching goals. Doesn’t the potential for an immediate freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and delivery development, as well as the ratcheting down of tensions, argue for relentlessly pursuing engagement, concurrent with sanctions enforcement?

Sanctions-only advocates deride freeze negotiation efforts as a waste of time, due to the North’s proven record of deceit. Yet, the sanctions endgame envisions the same deceptive regime eventually returning to the negotiation table where it will supposedly beg for relief from the stranglehold of sanctions, in return for nuclear dismantlement. If negotiations are presumptively doomed under a freeze scenario today because of Pyongyang’s unreliability, what would have changed about North Korea’s character that would not consign future denuclearization negotiations to utter failure as well, especially under circumstances that may entail confronting an ICBM-equipped North Korea?

The critical difference between both approaches is that engagement at least recognizes that the sand in the ICBM hourglass is quickly dissipating. A sanctions-only tact will have the world hoping for the Kim regime to eventually come around, without apparent regard for the tick-tock of the ICBM countdown clock. The question Korea watchers must answer is whether we can afford to effectively wait for North Korea to surrender to sanctions pressure, alone. Even if North Korea capitulates, closing the deal on a future denuclearization agreement will necessarily involve dialogue with the unscrupulous Kim regime.

To be clear, sanctions are a vital tool in our coercive arsenal, critical to helping contain North Korea’s metastasizing nuclear threat. Sanctions, however, can never solve the North Korean nuclear issue. Ultimately, it is an engagement strategy that must embody a comprehensive vision for confronting, denuclearizing, and, finally, defeating one of history’s most odious regimes. Put succinctly, engagement begins where sanctions end.

Crucial to the ultimate success of any freeze engagement, however, will be recognizing that we cannot just sign a document, shake hands, and go home. The real work will have to come in establishing – and enforcing – an iron-clad verification program, including the eventual testing of North Korea’s long-standing call to negotiate a permanent peace accord. For it is within the framework of peace treaty talks that Pyongyang will have to finally confront the dismantlement of its nuclear program, as no peace agreement worthy of the name could ever contemplate a US military exit from the peninsula that left North Korea’s nuclear arsenal intact.

Most importantly, any formal peace regime will serve to eventually undermine Kim Jong-un’s grip on power, as the North Korean people will come to reject the yoke of repression, deprivation, and isolation under which they have for so long toiled. In short, the North’s long-suffering people would demand its share of the peace dividend, starting with freedom.

Engagement, moreover, should not be correlated with weakness. The concept of hawkish engagement – i.e., engagement that does not devolve into a reflexive, one-way surrender of concessions – need not be the foreign policy unicorn it currently seems to be in some North Korea policy circles. That said, it would require direct discussions at the highest levels; it cannot be practiced out of sight in the salons and backrooms of unofficial Track 1.5 or 2.0 talks. The late US president Ronald Reagan, in his dealings with the former Soviet Union, provided a model of how an engagement-through-strength approach could work. And the sui generis Trump may possess the requisite audacity to actually achieve detente with the volatile Kim Jong-un.

What is certain is that we can no longer afford to indulge a passive-aggressive foreign policy towards Pyongyang. It is time to employ all options for confronting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, including engagement. Diplomacy – coercive and persuasive – with North Korea needs to be treated as the existential chess match it is and not just as a reactive game of geopolitical checkers. The stakes have never been higher and the price for inaction never greater.

In the end, the long-term trump card the administration has currently chosen not to play more forcefully is regime subversion through information infiltration (of which engagement can be an important component), a policy lever the White House is apparently treating as a mere afterthought to more conventional mechanisms of statecraft. Yet, as any student of North Korea can attest, what the Kim regime truly fears is the erosion of its totalitarian grip over its people resulting from their exposure to the world outside their Truman Show existence.

North Korea is trying to walk a tenuous tightrope through an increasingly hostile world in which information ubiquity and accessibility have made maintaining its balance ever more precarious. The United States should actively look for ways to push North Korea off that rope.

Tellingly, reports are that the Kim regime has passed a law increasing the penalty for possessing banned foreign media from two years to ten years in prison, given the corrosive threat they have come to represent to the state’s control. If the US is looking for pressure points, the key to regime change in North Korea may ultimately rest with the quaint USB stick.

Edward Oh is a lawyer and writer in Washington, DC. He has published articles on the role of North Korea's ideology and propaganda in its nuclear program.

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