North Korea Threatens the World: Washington Should Talk to Pyongyang

North Korea has imprisoned one American since 2012 and announced its intention to try two other U.S. citizens recently arrested for “perpetrating hostile acts.”  Having no diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Obama administration cannot even inquire as to the prisoners’ welfare. The U.S. should open official ties with the DPRK.

Recognition confirms geopolitical reality rather than validates government policy. Nevertheless, politics long has dominated diplomacy surrounding the Korean peninsula.

Washington and Pyongyang never recognized each other. South Korea and Japan also do not have relations with the North. Throughout the Cold War the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China did not deal with the Republic of Korea. 

But after the end of the Cold War Russia and then China recognized the South. In contrast, two decades later the allied powers still have not formally acknowledged North Korea’s existence.

After all, the North is building nuclear weapons, developing long-range missiles, conducting a confrontational foreign policy, and violating human rights. But this bill of particulars also largely applied to the Soviet Union, with which Washington maintained official ties throughout the Cold War, and the PRC, with which the Nixon administration opened relations. 

Refusing to talk with Moscow would have been grossly irresponsible because the two nations confronted each other militarily around the globe. Worse, as I point out in my new article on National Interest online:  “The lack of any diplomatic channel between America and the PRC during the Korean War may have expanded that conflict. Beijing had no effective means to warn against the U.S. advance to the Yalu.”

While Pyongyang is not a global power, its activities affect America. Which means there is much for the United States and North Korea to talk about. 

Negotiations obviously don’t guarantee results.  Both multilateral and bilateral discussions have occurred outside of official diplomatic channels.  Most of the deals ingloriously collapsed.

However, the lesson is not that ongoing relations are valueless, but that big agreements are unlikely, whatever the negotiating framework.  For instance, Pyongyang is unlikely to give up its existing nuclear arsenal.  Nevertheless, secondary but still important objectives may be achievable. 

First, treating Pyongyang as a diplomatic equal would meet one of the DPRK’s longstanding demands.  Second, sitting down with North Korea might help moderate the regime’s natural paranoia. Third, more regular discussions would help American officials better understand the Kim regime. Fourth, routine contacts would allow talks to develop informally over time.

Of course, Washington might find itself disappointed on all counts. But even a negative result would be an important lesson for America, and even more so for China, which has pressed Washington to engage North Korea. 

No doubt, critics would complain that initiating diplomatic ties was a “reward” for the North. However, as the world’s dominant power, America could afford to make such a faux concession. 

Moreover, opening a small mission would be less embarrassing than having to periodically send Bill Clinton or Dennis Rodman to the North to rescue jailed Americans. And simply having a small window into North Korean society would be useful. 

Now is a propitious moment for Washington to move.  The DPRK remains heavily dependent on China, which evidently makes the former uncomfortable. With PRC-ROK relations improving—President Xi Jinping recently visited Seoul—the North has been looking elsewhere.  It is talking to Tokyo and rebuilding ties with Russia. 

Washington should offer North Korea another alternative. Critical issues divide the two nations, of course, but they do not prevent diplomatic footsie. Present policy obviously is not working.  Why not try something else?

The Obama administration should offer to talk with North Korea. Doing so might change nothing, but that would be no worse than the status quo and the results just might surprise.