Why Washington Needs a New North Korea Strategy

Washington should engage diplomatically with the Pyongyang. Doing so might not change anything, but that would be no worse than the status quo.

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, but instead must rely on Sweden, which acts in Washington’s stead. The United States should create official ties with the DPRK.

Countries have long used diplomatic relations as a weapon, even though recognition confirms geopolitical reality, rather than validates government policy. A state cannot be wished away even if it is controlled by unpleasant, distasteful or antagonistic forces. When issues between nations arise, it is usually best if the governments talk to each other. And that is easiest done if they both have diplomats in each other’s countries.

Nevertheless, politics has long dominated diplomacy surrounding the Korean peninsula. Washington and Pyongyang have 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 recognize the Republic of Korea. (For most of that time, the PRC and United States also did not officially talk.) One longstanding proposal to break the diplomatic deadlock was “cross-recognition,” by which everyone would recognize everyone. The United States, Japan and the ROK would establish ties with North Korea, and the USSR, PRC and North Korea would open diplomatic relations with the South.

The end of the Cold War delivered the last half of that deal. Russia went first, followed by China, Pyongyang’s most important ally. Two decades later, the allied powers still have not formally acknowledged North Korea’s existence.

America, the ROK and Japan see the DPRK as an enemy state. No treaty has replaced the armistice that ended the fighting. The North is building nuclear weapons, developing long-range missiles, conducting a confrontational foreign policy and violating human rights. For the allies, the bill of particulars is long.

But it is also one that 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 while downgrading its close relationship with Taiwan. Both of these communist giants were at military odds with America, engaged Washington in real or proxy wars, battled the United States diplomatically and ran gulag states.

However, refusing to talk with Moscow would have been grossly irresponsible, because the two nations confronted each other militarily around the globe. They could not avoid contact with each other.

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. Instead, China unsuccessfully attempted to use India as a go-between. Direct talks might have failed, but maybe not. The PRC’s entry turned a quick American victory into deadlock and prolonged the conflict by two years.

The United States should learn from this case and initiate diplomatic relations with the DPRK.

While Pyongyang is not a global power, its activities affect America. The two countries confront each other militarily and spar over nonproliferation. U.S. economic sanctions and membership veto in multilateral aid agencies affect the North’s development. Americans keep getting arrested in the DPRK. Bilateral hostility affects Washington’s relations with Russia and especially China.

Clearly, there is much for the United States and North Korea to talk about. On Washington’s end: American citizens imprisoned and at risk of prison, recent missile launches, Pyongyang’s professed determination to be a nuclear power, threatening conventional deployments, human rights, and so on. On Pyongyang’s end: a peace treaty, relaxation of sanctions, economic and humanitarian assistance, an end to joint military exercises between the United States and the ROK, the removal of American troops from the South, and so on.

Negotiations obviously don’t guarantee results. The Six-Party talks have yielded agreements. Bilateral discussions have also occurred outside of official diplomatic channels. In the early 1990s, the United States and the DPRK negotiated the Agreed Framework, which promised the North a light-water nuclear reactor in exchange for abandoning its nuclear-weapons program. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright later visited Pyongyang. Most of the deals ingloriously collapsed—and not always due to Northern intransigence. For instance, Washington was slow to fulfill the Agreed Framework.