This screen-grab image taken from North Korean broadcaster KCTV in 2019 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watching the launch of a ballistic missile at an unknown location. Photo: AFP / Handout / KCTV

Policies toward North Korea have swung from engagement – such as in the Six-Party Talks and the Trump-Kim summits – to the unilateral stances of “maximum pressure” and “strategic patience” (although the latter was never an official policy).

Underlying these differing policies, however, there have been assumptions that have been consistent and persistent. Because for decades none of the policies have succeeded, maybe it is time to re-examine the perennial assumptions.

What are these assumptions? There are four main ones:

  1. There is a Korea problem that needs solving;
  2. The biggest problem is North Korea’s nuclear weapons program;
  3. Only a united international community can persuade North Korea to alter its course;
  4. The United States must lead the way.

The fourth point is not only an American assumption; even the Chinese and North Korean governments have said that the issues at stake are mostly ones that the US government must takes steps to solve.

First, however, there is an even more basic assumption to examine, that US and South Korean policies toward North Korea have failed. It could be argued that their policies have not in fact been total failures.

Sanctions have almost certainly slowed North Korea’s weapons program over the years, inter-Korean engagement has led to sporadic accomplishments, and pressure played a role in leading North Korea to the Trump-Kim summits. We can stipulate, however, that the basic aim of policy has not succeeded because it has not led to its self-stated goal of a North Korea without nuclear weapons.

The ‘Korea problem’

To take the four main assumptions in order: first, is there a Korea problem that needs solving? Relations among the world’s countries can be good or bad, but isn’t that normal? Why isn’t the Korean Peninsula just another situation to manage rather than a problem to solve?

The answer is that neither North nor South Korea considers the status quo viable. The constitutions of both countries call for unification. There is consensus that the division of the peninsula is artificial and contrary to Korean culture and history, although there is no consensus on how unification is to be achieved or how soon.

Second, the international community considers the situation of Korea to be in need of resolution. The 1953 Armistice, acknowledged by all the wartime belligerents and repeatedly endorsed by the United Nations, calls for a diplomatic resolution of the “Korea question.”

North Korea’s nukes

On the second assumption regarding the primacy of the nuclear-weapons question, there has been a conflation of the “Korea question” and the North Korean nuclear program.

Tensions on the peninsula predated North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the nuclear program is a result of unresolved tensions rather than their cause.

North Korean nukes put American security at risk, and the security of South Korea and Japan even more so because they are within easier reach.

China and Russia have reason to be concerned about leakage of nuclear materials and know-how from North Korea. They are also aware that North Korean nukes provide a basis for an unwelcome, from their point of view, US military presence in the region.

Finally, it is only a trick of the way we picture the map that makes it surprising that from Pyongyang, Brussels is closer than Los Angeles. North Korean missiles can reach lots of places.

The seriousness of the risk posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons is a good reason for it to be the highest priority for US and South Korean policy toward North Korea, and they have often said that it is. However, even if North Korea abandoned its nuclear program, the risks posed by its conventional weapons, cyber capabilities, and illicit trade would remain. North Korea’s grotesque human-rights record would also remain a compelling issue.

It is worth noting that from North Korea’s perspective, its possession of nuclear weapons is not the biggest problem to be solved. The viability of North Korea and long-term survival of Kim Jong Un’s regime depend on getting the economy up off the floor. It is in terrible shape, which has been acknowledged by North Korea.

Sanctions are not the main problem. They have done less damage than North Korea’s own Covid-19 pandemic trade restrictions. Neither has done as much damage as the North Korean government’s mismanagement of its economy, done in the name of misguided five-year plans and supposed self-sufficiency.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons are possibly a threat to international peace and security, but the failure of its economy is probably an existential threat to North Korea.

‘United front’

The third assumption is that a united international front is the only way to persuade North Korea to negotiate and make concessions. The narrative is that North Korea has masterfully exploited differences between countries. It can evade pressure to do what it does not want to do either by driving wedges between countries or exploiting their lack of harmony.

What makes this assumption suspect is that it is such a tempting excuse for inaction.

If the United States cannot persuade North Korea to negotiate constructively, it is because China is not enforcing sanctions strictly enough. If China cannot nudge North Korea toward a less destabilizing policy, it is because the United States is too threatening toward North Korea. If South Korea cannot get North Korea to participate in inter-Korean projects, it is because the United States and China are not creating a conducive atmosphere.

It might be at least as reasonable to assume that if different countries take different approaches toward North Korea, North Korea might consider one of them worth pursuing. Defeated countries might try to negotiate terms, but cornered countries rarely feel like constructive conversations.

US leadership

The fourth assumption is that the United States must take the lead in negotiating with North Korea. There is a lot of history, beginning with the US command during the Korean War and up through the Trump-Kim summits, to support that notion, but is it necessarily true today?

For its part, North Korea argues that it is US “hostile policy” that requires it to have nuclear weapons. That is the excuse Pyongyang has used to arm and isolate itself against the real threat, which is domestic awareness of how small and pathetic North Korea is in comparison with the rest of the world, and how much better off the North Korean people could be if it let down its guard.

The United States provides the pretext for the Kim regime to demand sacrifice and obedience from the North Korean people. North Korea is therefore unlikely to undertake any significant reform absent agreements with the United States and South Korea.

A US-North Korea and inter-Korean agreements are therefore necessary but insufficient to resolve the “Korea question.” Even in the short term, other countries may play a useful, perhaps even important, role in providing both incentives and disincentives toward North Korea to improve its behavior.

Every “small deal” in which China, Russia, Japan, Australia, ASEAN or the EU could play a part that would lead North Korea to treat other countries, or its own people, better does not mean a delay in denuclearization. It might even hasten that day.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has emphasized alliance cooperation and multilateral diplomacy, which is both a return to traditional postwar American diplomacy and a new recognition that the United States cannot and should not want to be in the lead everywhere, at all times, on every issue.

Dealing with North Korea needs a coordinated dual-track approach of US-North Korea and South Korea-North Korea diplomacy, but not to the exclusion of all else.

Almost every element of global politics and diplomacy has changed during the last 50 years. Why should diplomacy toward the Korean Peninsula be the exception?

Mark Tokola

Mark Tokola is vice-president of the Korea Economic Institute of America in Washington, DC. He retired from the US Foreign Service in 2014 after a 38-year career. He served as director of the Iraq Transition Assistance Office in Baghdad from 2007-2008. Tokola received the US State Department’s Superior Honor Award for his work on implementing the Dayton Peace Accords while serving as political counselor in Sarajevo from 1997-1999.