North Korea is not rushing to disarm. Pyongyang’s return to its rhetoric of old to describe Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit suggested a significant difference between United States and North Korean expectations.
That should surprise no one. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un would be foolish to cast away weapons developed at such cost—which are the only certain means to protect his rule from America’s overwhelming military power. Since taking over in December 2011 he has ruthlessly consolidated power. He knows that foreign leaders trust Washington at their peril.
In fact, many observers remain skeptical that Kim is willing to yield his arsenal for any economic reward. Last year Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, explained that he “has watched, I think, what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have.” The experience of Libya dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi was “If you had nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them.”
Has Kim had an unexpected change of heart? Not likely, but even if so he wouldn’t give away his deterrent based only on the president’s promise of goodwill after five hours of talks.
Indeed, the summit communique set denuclearization as last in a series of actions. The first was to “establish new U.S.-DPRK relations” reflecting a mutual desire “for peace and prosperity.” The second was “to build a lasting and stable peace regime.” Third was working for denuclearization.
Although the president may have wanted to get the nukes at the beginning, that never was Pyongyang’s view. Before the summit Kim asked why his country would need nuclear weapons if it established good relations with America? There’s an obvious answer to that question—ask Muammar el-Qaddafi how his bromance with President George W. Bush worked out—but even if Kim was serious the relationship he suggested would require more than one brief meeting. Creating a “lasting” system will take time.
Amid reports of continuing North Korean nuclear work, the administration should advance engagement policies to help move the denuclearization process forward. What initiatives at little cost or risk to America would promote the sort of relations and regime Kim requested? What would help convince Kim that the United States does not now nor ever will support regime change?
First, Secretary Pompeo should drop the ban on Americans traveling to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Imposed last September, the prohibition made no sense even then. Otto Warmbier’s case was tragic—and almost certainly more complicated than commonly presented. But he was the only one detained in 2016 out of about one thousand Americans who visited. Obviously, the North did not routinely arrest U.S. visitors.
When visiting North Korea last June I spoke with the leader of a religious NGO who had investigated the cases of Americans who had been imprisoned. All had broken North Korean rules. They didn’t deserve their punishment, but violating local laws and customs could result in the same or worse in other nations. Indeed, Americans have been arrested for political purposes by such nominal allies as Pakistan and Turkey. Americans also have been kidnapped by radical groups when visiting Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Anyway, past abuses are unlikely to recur. Whatever Kim’s intentions, he is not so foolish as to ostentatiously antagonize Washington by treating another American as he did Warmbier. Any kind of détente will require Americans to visit, not just for leisure, but for business and as educators, humanitarian workers, journalists and policy analysts. I’ve gone twice in the latter capacity and learned much. In turn, foreigners educate North Koreans, by their very presence refuting regime propaganda. The best hope for peaceful transformation of the North is from the inside. The greater the foreign contact the better.
Second, the administration should end its ban on North Koreans visiting America. The North likely was added (along with Venezuela) in an attempt to undercut claims the president was implementing a “Muslim ban.” The measure also may have been intended to increase the North’s isolation.
However, the restriction made even less sense than preventing Americans from traveling to the DPRK. Very few North Koreans came to America. They are not allowed to travel freely and certainly not to the United States. Most visitors were government officials, guests of NGOs, and defectors. Why block any of them?
Instead, the administration should encourage North Koreans to visit. The United States famously hosted Soviet students, some of whom ended up serving under Mikhail Gorbachev. South Korea recently approved of academic exchanges with DPRK universities. North Korean college professors are studying in Canada. Why shouldn’t students and professors—and eventually even tourists, if the North changes sufficiently—come to America as well?
Third, Washington should drop its designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. The label actually has nothing to do with sponsoring terrorism. The United States routinely cites regimes, such as Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria, which it dislikes for other reasons. The North’s last known terrorist act was the destruction of a South Korean airliner thirty years ago.