Should America Reengage with North Korea?

The United States has favored a policy of what some observers have called “strategic patience.” There could be a better way.

This week, Chinese President Xi Jinping visits South Korean President Park Geun-Hye in Seoul, and next week, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew will meet with Chinese leaders in Beijing. These meetings provide an opportunity for the three countries to consider next steps on the vexing problem of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs—and in particular, to discuss whether and under what conditions to resume multilateral talks on the denuclearization of the DPRK.

The last round of Six Party Talks—involving North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan, and Russia—was held in December 2008. Since then, the Obama administration has been reluctant (understandably so) to resume the six-party process, given the North’s provocative behavior and little evidence that a return to the process would produce meaningful results.

The administration has been determined to break the cycle in which the North Koreans engage in destabilizing activities, receive compensation in terms of economic and other benefits for suspending those activities, and then eventually renege on their commitments and resume those activities whenever it suits them. So instead of responding to provocative behavior by returning to the talks, the United States has favored what some observers have called “strategic patience”—resisting engagement and opting instead for stepping up economic and political pressure in the hope of altering Pyongyang’s strategic calculus and bringing the North’s leaders to the conclusion that the only sensible approach is to change course fundamentally.

But strategic patience has not produced better results than previous policies toward North Korea. Indeed, over the last five years—spanning the death of Kim Jong-il and the succession of his son, Kim Jong-un—the situation has steadily deteriorated.

North Korea has perpetrated murderous acts against the South, sinking an ROK naval vessel and shelling a South Korean island, killing both civilians and military personnel. With nuclear tests in 2009 and 2013 and test launches of short-, medium-, and long-range missiles (including in the guise of civilian space-launch vehicles), it has enhanced its capability to strike U.S. allies and eventually the U.S. homeland with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. It has publicly renounced the goal of denuclearization and stressed that its nuclear-weapons program is permanent. Contrary to UN Security Council resolutions, it has continued to peddle arms and perhaps sensitive technologies to other countries. With inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) no longer given access, the ability to monitor and understand DPRK intentions and capabilities has sharply degraded. The regime’s treatment of its own people remains abysmal. And while sanctions have increased and reinforced North Korea’s international isolation, China’s continued reluctance to use its leverage decisively against Pyongyang has enabled its leaders to evade tough choices.

U.S. policy toward North Korea is dead in the water. This is not a particular criticism of the Obama administration. U.S. policy toward the DPRK for the last quarter century has essentially failed.

Of course, some problems don’t have solutions, at least not at a price we are willing to pay. The North Korea nuclear issue may be one of them. Perhaps the best we can do is manage the problem—limit the damage as much as possible.

But this is a problem with enormous stakes for U.S. national security, for our allies, for the stability of Northeast Asia, and for the global nonproliferation regime. And it seems headed in a dangerous direction. Left to continue on that trajectory, things could get a lot worse. Simply managing the problem could become a very risky strategy. So, as frustrating as dealing with the North Koreans has been over the last two decades and as skeptical as we have every right to be about prospects for success, we should now give serious consideration to whether more active engagement with the North could serve U.S. interests.

For the last several months, China has energetically sought to build support for a resumption of the Six Party Talks. The North Koreans have asserted their readiness to return to the negotiating table without preconditions, presumably hoping to realize the economic and other benefits of engagement. But they have resisted reaffirming their previous commitments to suspend nuclear activities and pursue denuclearization, especially those contained in the September 2005 six-party joint statement. For their part, the United States, South Korea, and Japan have seen little point in resumption unless Pyongyang is willing not only to recommit to the goal of denuclearization, but also to lend credibility to that commitment by taking concrete steps to restrain its nuclear and missile programs.

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