North Korea Wants Attention: Let’s Talk to Pyongyang

North Korea has been in a conciliatory mood recently, suggesting a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.  Pyongyang also indicated that it would suspend nuclear tests if the United States cancelled joint military exercises with the South. 

The United States refused and went ahead with the naval maneuvers.  In fact, the Obama administration recently expanded sanctions on North Korea in response to the Kim regime’s apparent hacking of Sony pictures.  Alas, past experience suggests the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea likely will respond with new provocations, perhaps another nuclear test.

Frustration with the Kim regime led retired Gen. John Macdonald to propose turning the movie ‘The Interview’ into reality:  “We’ve got to do something.”

Since Pyongyang hasn’t changed its behavior, the United States should try a different approach, but not an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un.  Washington should start by dropping the annual military exercise and reducing America’s military presence.  The administration also should develop a comprehensive engagement plan for North Korea.

Obviously, there’s no guarantee that engagement would yield a more positive result.  However, the People’s Republic of China’s growing frustration with the younger Kim provides an unexpected opportunity for Washington. 

So far, Beijing has proved unwilling to apply significant pressure on the DPRK lest the result be a messy collapse with advantage to a united Korea allied with America.  But China has tired of the antics of its irresponsible neighbor, especially the latter’s nuclear weapons program. 

The PRC nevertheless remains reluctant to cooperate with Washington unless the United States reduces the perceived threat to North Korea.  The United States should express its willingness to negotiate with the North, and even create a low-key diplomatic presence, such as a small consular office. As I point out in National Interest:  “Whatever the North’s response, the U.S. would gain a useful window into a mysterious political system and provide the Kim regime with something to lose for bad behavior.”

Equally important, Washington should work with the Republic of Korea and Japan to prepare an offer for full engagement.  North Korea would receive diplomatic recognition and economic benefits.  The United States would withdraw its troops from the ROK and drop future military exercises.  And the three governments would pledge not to push regime change.  In return, Pyongyang would end its nuclear program, turn over existing nuclear materials, and accept a verification system.

In the unlikely event that the North agreed, the deal would benefit all Northeast Asia.  If DPRK said no, the United States would have greater leverage with China. 

Washington could point out that it had followed Beijing’s advice.  If the PRC was serious about promoting peace over the long-term on the peninsula, it would apply progressively greater pressure on North Korea to negotiate a satisfactory agreement. 

Should China fail to act, it would be clear that they planned to remain part of the problem.  The United States could plan accordingly. 

North Korea targets America only because U.S. troops confront the DPRK.  Otherwise, Pyongyang would have little reason to consider Washington.  It would be best for America to back away from the peninsula by withdrawing U.S. forces and terminating the formal defense guarantee, leaving the South responsible for its own defense. 

American officials also should stop reaffirming America’s nuclear umbrella over the region.  Nuclear non-proliferation in Northeast Asia has turned into an unfortunate variant of gun control at home: only the bad guys have guns. 

It is not in the interests of the American people to be stuck in the region’s nuclear tangle.  Moreover, stepping back, thus creating the prospect of South Korean and Japanese bombs, would be the most effective way to push Beijing into taking a more active role in discouraging a North Korean arsenal.

Pyongyang wants to talk and the United States should talk with them.  Washington has little to lose and possibly something to gain.