World of the Worsts
The result of the conventional U.S. policy of expecting China’s full cooperation, relying mainly on pressure tactics without political engagement, and having no comprehensive plan (in other words, the absence of a strategy) has been the ever-worsening strategic position of the United States in the region surrounding the Korean Peninsula. The United States has been pushed gradually and unnoticeably to the “world of the worsts.” The United States not only failed in denuclearizing North Korea but also pushed Pyongyang further into the orbit of China, leading to ever-increasing Chinese influence over North Korea.
This occurred even though most North Koreans, including their top leader, Kim Jong-un, deeply resent China. ‘Juche’ (self-reliance) has long been the leading national ideology for North Korea, and Kim Jong-un may have been very worried deep in his mind about his country’s heavy economic dependence on China with over ninety percent of North Korea’s trade with China—until North Korea’s self-quarantine measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The United States could have utilized Kim Jong-un’s concern in one way or another, but instead squandered the opportunity.
World of the Bests
In contrast, China was appreciating the “world of the bests,” enjoying the benefit of the status quo with no complete denuclearization, no war, no collapse of the North Korean regime, and ever-increasing influence over both Koreas.
The fact that North Korea has been pushed into the arms of China also has an important implication for South Korea’s foreign policy. In addition to China’s strong economic influence over South Korea, North Korea’s heavy dependence on China has made South Korea and its policy-makers very conscious of China’s influence over North Korea in the process of South Korea’s foreign policy-making. This is simply because of South Koreans’ cherished desire for a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. In my view, the Korean people’s desire to build a permanent peace should not be dismissed simply as a matter of partisan politics in South Korea. Progressive political leaders and even conservatives such as former president Park Geun-hye tried hard to nurture close ties with Xi because of her wish for China’s help in settling the North Korea problem and building a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. In this sense, U.S. policy toward North Korea, which pushed it toward China, has significantly constrained South Korea’s foreign policy-making.
This means that as long as the conventional U.S. policy continues, U.S. influence on the Korean Peninsula will be likely to recede compared to the Chinese influence in this age of intensifying competition. The United States is already far behind China in terms of building an economic base in North Korea. In the case of a contingency in North Korea, which some hardline supporters of regime change might want, not U.S. but Chinese influence will dominate the Korean Peninsula. This is why the United States needs to be more realistic and adjust its strategy toward North Korea. What the United States needs is neither a wait-and-see nor a piecemeal tactical adjustment based on the ineffective conventional approach. It needs a bold strategic shift of its North Korea policy in accordance with the new reality.
A Bold New Strategy
Most of all, a bold new strategy toward North Korea means engaging North Korea politically in order to fundamentally change the nature of the bilateral relationship. In other words, the United States needs to consider a détente with North Korea as it did with China in the early 1970s and Vietnam in the mid-1990s. The purpose of this new policy would be communicating more closely with its top leader, getting North Korea out of its diplomatic isolation, accomplishing the goal of complete denuclearization, and inducing North Korea to become not just a normal state but a partner of the United States.
In order to achieve these goals, the Biden team needs to adopt a two-track approach at the current stage. On the one hand, it needs to begin by taking some bold initiatives in order to engage North Korea politically. Measures that could be considered include offering to establish liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang; beginning confidence-building measures like military-to-military exchange programs; declaring the end of the Korean War; inviting North Korean bureaucrats, students, sports and performance teams to the United States; and establishing a U.S.-DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) or a U.S.-DPRK-ROK (Republic of Korea) Track-1.5 commission for planning to help North Korea’s economic reconstruction.
In particular, establishing liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington should be the first measure considered for political engagement. We need to recognize that North Korea’s nuclear program has already advanced too far. It will take a long time and be all but technically impossible to denuclearize that country without mobilizing their voluntary cooperation. A New York Times article on May 6, 2018 pointed out that even if the International Atomic Energy Agency brought all of its inspectors into North Korea, it would be impossible to inspect all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities. There are simply too many facilities, and nobody knows where North Korea is hiding its weapons and fissile materials. In order to mobilize North Korea’s voluntary cooperation, there should be a fundamental change in political relations between the two countries, which would begin with establishing liaison offices.
The United States and North Korea were almost at the stage of completing the deal on establishing liaison offices through five meetings of negotiating teams from September 1994 to mid-1995. However, the North Korean side canceled the exchange of liaison offices at the final stage. It was likely due to the strong tension between the military and the foreign ministry over which side would take initiative on the U.S.-North Korea communication. However, the situation now is quite different from then. Chairman Kim Jong-un’s attitude at the summit meetings with President Trump showed his seriousness about improving relations with the United States. When asked by an American reporter during the Hanoi summit about establishing a liaison office, Kim said “I think that is something which is welcomable.”
According to the conventional approach, all these measures might be considered as a quid pro quo for North Korea’s cooperation in denuclearization. The new approach should regard all these measures as an early unilateral gesture to increase communications, build mutual trust, and improve political relations. All measures for political engagement should be de-linked from the negotiation process for denuclearization on the other track. For instance, the Biden team may pursue a gradual phased approach to denuclearization, which would be a realistic approach. However, they need to take additional measures for political engagement in parallel to negotiations for denuclearization. Though these two-track negotiations would be delinked, talks on political engagement will significantly provide incentives and facilitate talks on denuclearization.
Considering North Korea’s past behavior, some may worry that North Korea will simply “pocket” unilateral gestures without making any corresponding concessions. However, here we are talking about changing the nature of the bilateral relationship fundamentally after which both countries will play a very different game. If North Korea takes the U.S. offer of détente seriously, that means North Korea will be entering the international community where reciprocity is the rule of the game. North Korean behavior will then have to change qualitatively. For example, Vietnam, once a deadly enemy of the United States, has become a close partner of the United States through the strategic decision of U.S. political leaders for détente in the early 1990s. Thereafter, the United States was able to induce significant changes in Vietnamese behavior with its much superior resources and leverage. It could effectively mobilize Vietnam’s full cooperation on the POW/MIA issue, withdrawal from Cambodia, and even human rights issues.
There is one caveat. Though measures for political engagement should be taken on one track, pressuring North Korea with economic sanctions would still be necessary on the other track of negotiating denuclearization. This is because North Korea’s intention regarding its nuclear program may have shifted from defensive to offensive. Rapid growth of its nuclear capability might have caused that kind of shift despite North Korea’s public announcement that its nuclear weapons are only for defensive purposes. For example, North Korea may not only be able to attack any city in the U.S. mainland through its growing ICBM capabilities but also to weaken the U.S. commitment to provide extended nuclear deterrence to its allies, South Korea and Japan. In this way, North Korea may try to weaken the U.S.-ROK alliance through its nuclear and missile capabilities and strive for a more favorable political-military environment for unifying the Korean Peninsula on their own terms.
North Korea may argue that economic sanctions are evidence of U.S. hostility. However, they need to recognize the hostility and the threat at the current stage are not one-sided but mutual. Their nuclear development is a grave threat to the United States. North Korea has already threatened a few times that they could strike U.S. territory with their nuclear ICBM. Thus, the principle of exchanging sanctions with denuclearization should be maintained.