Jaw‐jaw is better than war‐war said Winston Churchill, who led Great Britain during World War II. Which is reason enough to hope that the interim agreement reached with Iran leads to a permanent settlement. And that even North Korea might eventually join the normal community of nations.
While prospects of peace with Iran appear better — though the road ahead remains long and rocky — the possibility of a similar accord with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea looks ever further away. On the positive side, Washington and Beijing apparently have talked about reviving the Six‐Party nuclear talks, and U.S. and North Korean officials met in London last month over the same issue. One American envoy characterized the latter discussions as “cordial and respectful.”
However, the Kim Jong‐un government has reactivated the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which was mothballed in 2007, and begun new excavations at the Punggye‐ri nuclear test site. Moreover, Pyongyang recently detained an aging American visitor, poisoning any discussions before they start.
The DPRK has been holding one American, Ken Bae, for more than a year. Bae’s arrest was explicable if unfortunate — he is thought to have entered as a tourist in order to engage in Christian evangelism. His actions, characterized by Pyongyang as “hostile acts,” were a certain ticket to prison camp in the rabidly atheist state.
In contrast, in late October 85‐year‐old Korean War veteran Merrill Newman, who had just finished a ten‐day visit organized through a British‐based tour agency, was pulled off his flight home before its departure. Newman appeared to have done nothing out of the ordinary. His traveling companion said there must have been a “terrible misunderstanding.”
The North has yet to explain the arrest. Newman might have inadvertently crossed some North Korean red line, been confused with a more famous namesake who won the Silver Star while fighting in Korea, or looked like an attractive bargaining chip in potential future negotiations.
Yet none of these explanations convince. Pyongyang routinely provokes its neighbors and the West, but there always has been some logic to its actions. Detaining Newman, an inoffensive octogenarian grandfather visiting a nation which continued to fascinate him decades after a terrible war, guarantees a bad result for the DPRK. The detention promises international criticism, undercuts support for engagement, and threatens a growing tourism industry. Most important, Newman’s situation impedes any effort to improve bilateral and regional relations.
Unfortunately, the U.S. does not have official relations with the North and is forced to work through the Swedish embassy. Secretary of State John Kerry criticized the “very, very disturbing choices by the North Koreans.” The Department’s special envoy on the DPRK, Glyn Davies, said the incident “is an indication that North Korea seems not to be seeking a better relationship with the United States.”
The best overall approach to the DPRK is to lower expectations. Pyongyang has proposed nuclear negotiations “without preconditions” and apparently suggested a willingness to halt missile and nuclear tests. However, few observers believe that Pyongyang is prepared to do what it has refused to do for two decades, give up its nuclear ambitions. Chinese Central Party School analyst Zhang Liangui said the DPRK “wants to turn back to the negotiation table as a nuclear state and act as a supervisor of other nuclear states.”
For this reason last week South Korea’s Secretary for Foreign Affairs and National Security, Ju Chul‐ki, opined: “Prior to the resumption, however, North Korea should pledge to remove its nuclear weapons and come up with detailed action plans on how it will implement this.” The Obama administration previously took a similar position, saying that did not want to “engage in talks merely for the sake of talks” and insisting that the Kim regime commit to denuclearization.
Dream on. Iran is challenge enough to convince to abandon a nuclear path: it is widely believed to desire a nuclear capability, but has produced no weapons and, in fact, U.S. intelligence agencies don’t believe it has an active weapons program underway. Given Tehran’s manifold insecurities, having endured a brutal invasion by Iraq three decades ago and constant military threats from nuclear‐armed America and Israel in ensuing years, winning final agreement to foreclose the nuclear option won’t be easy.
North Korea is much further along. It has generated enough nuclear materials to produce perhaps a dozen or more weapons and has conducted three nuclear tests. Moreover, in contrast to Iran, which would remain a major regional player even sans nuclear capabilities, the DPRK is a true “shrimp among whales” as the Korean peninsula has been called. The small, impoverished state would be ignored even by its neighbors but for its presumptive nuclear arsenal.
The North also faces what to it appear to be far greater security threats from an alliance between South Korea and the U.S., the world’s premier military power, which stations troops along the DPRK border. Tellingly, the Western attack on Libya demonstrated the risks for any pariah regime which reached an agreement to drop missile and nuclear programs — Washington’s unsentimental reaction to past promises was “what have you done for me lately?”
Of course, the North’s response to these perceived threats inevitably pushes the Republic of Korea closer to America. But Pyongyang’s perceptions just as inevitably drive its own military policies. As Henry Kissinger once said, even paranoids have enemies.
Thus, Washington should take the Kim regime at its word when the latter opined: “The legitimate status of the DPRK as a nuclear‐weapons state will go on and on without vacillation whether others recognize it or not.” The U.S. needs to recognize the North’s position de facto if not de jure.
Some would escalate in response. The Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner has criticized America’s “timid policies that only incrementally increase punishments on Pyongyang” and called on Washington to “show resolve to enforce international agreements.” Evans Revere of the Brookings Institution urged exploration of “new mechanisms … to increase and fine‐tune pressure on North Korea.”
However, the Kim dynasty has withstood not only steadily tougher sanctions but poverty and even starvation. Absent a dramatic new effort, backed by the Peoples Republic of China, it is hard to believe the outcome of any new penalties would be any different. To the contrary, the more committed the U.S. appears to be to regime change, the more obvious the case to the North to acquire not just nukes, but many nukes with missiles capable of delivering them to America.
A better strategy would be to inaugurate policies designed to defuse the threat environment. The so‐called Demilitarized Zone is the most heavily armed border on earth, yet Washington and Pyongyang have no means to directly talk with one another, let alone any ongoing relationship.
The first step is to loosen rather than tighten the U.S.-ROK alliance. The end of the Cold War has robbed the Korean peninsula of any claim to being a “vital” security interest for America. And the South’s rise — it now possesses an economy thought to be around 40 times the size that of the DPRK — has eliminated any need for U.S. military support. Ending war games, dropping overflights, closing bases, and withdrawing troops would eliminate one excuse for the North’s intermittent provocations, advanced conventional deployments, and nuclear developments. Washington should extricate itself from the Korean peninsula’s interminable controversies.
This would naturally lead to the second step, turning the lead for security developments on the peninsula over to regional powers. The North’s neighbors, including China, have an interest in peace, prosperity, and stability. If they were unable to rely on the U.S., they would have to do more and act more creatively themselves. They should be responsible for, and accept the consequences of, their policies toward the DPRK.
The third step for the Obama administration is to deemphasize denuclearization. Nuclear negotiations aren’t going anywhere, so put them aside. Indeed, a small North Korean arsenal is a problem much more for the region, including Beijing, than for America. Washington’s red line should be proliferation to terrorist groups. The U.S. should emphasize that distinction.
Lastly, Washington should start small‐scale engagement with the North, official talks followed by low‐key diplomatic relations. Kim Yong Nam, the DPRK’s official head of state, declared last month: “There wouldn’t be any reason for us to be on bad terms with the United States if the U.S. government gives up its hostile policy and adopts for a policy change of respecting our sovereignty.”
Of course, everything depends on the definition of a “hostile policy.” Nevertheless, engagement would demonstrate Washington’s respect for the DPRK’s sovereignty. An official relationship wouldn’t eliminate the dramatic differences between the two nations, but might help reduce dangerous differences by opening windows into each other’s societies and channels for contact, both official and unofficial. An ongoing relationship also might discourage such unpredictable and petty provocations as Newman’s detention. Most important, it could promote development of what Revere calls “a direct channel to the leadership in Pyongyang,” those who actually make decisions. Officially accepting the DPRK’s existence would eliminate at least one incentive for North Korea’s perpetual brinkmanship.
Indeed, why, after six decades, not formally conclude the Korean War with a peace treaty? Obviously a piece (and peace) of paper would not guarantee the absence of future conflict, but negotiation over such a document would provide another venue for engagement, including South Korea and China.
Diplomatic discussions, if accompanied by positive policy changes, could lead to the loosening of sanctions or development of some other incentives to reward less provocative behavior. Talks even could include the most difficult topics, such as human rights. To the extent that the North genuinely fears the U.S., greater engagement might help defuse some potentially dangerous tensions.
Of course, nothing might change. North Korean policy might continue as before. But there is little downside to opening official discourse with what is both the de jure and de facto government of the North. Some might see official relations as a “reward,” but if so, that is a “reward” enjoyed by virtually every other nation on earth, even bitter adversaries of America with poor human rights records, such as the old Soviet Union.
Today Washington policymakers are fixated on negotiations with Iran. Most people hope for a positive outcome. A few in the well‐organized neoconservative war lobby fear precisely the same result. While the ultimate success of negotiations remain in doubt, a more stable peace at least appears possible.
Not so on the Korean peninsula, where the Newman detention makes any talks less likely. Frustrations with past efforts to variously conciliate or confront have led to little interest in new approaches toward the DPRK. Some would tolerate the status quo while committing the U.S. even more militarily to South Korea’s defense. Others advocate what John Feffer, co‐director of Foreign Policy in Focus, calls a policy of “collapsism,” that is, simply hoping the DPRK will disappear.
Washington should try a different approach. Economic, family, and cultural ties with the South will naturally remain strong, but the U.S. should step back militarily from the peninsula. At the same time, the Obama administration should pursue modest diplomatic rapprochement with the North. If civil discussions occur and official ties develop, the two governments could move onto bigger security issues.
In the meantime, at least, Washington should emphasize Winston Churchill’s jaw‐jaw over war‐war. If that reduced the possibility of conflict even a little bit, it would be a good deal.