As the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review nears completion, there is growing worry that it could dig in its heels on previous US efforts to change North Korea’s behavior through isolation and pressure. Early signals indicate the Biden team is prioritizing pressure among many options. Several experts, however, believe this approach will continue to fail because it incorrectly assumes North Korea will yield to coercive tactics and that China will cooperate in this effort.
Instead, the United States needs a more effective strategy for dealing with the reality of an insecure and nuclear-armed North Korea. Maintaining deterrence and preserving denuclearization as a long-term goal are, of course, essential. However, a practical approach to US and regional security should also maximize the opportunities and channels for interacting with the North Korean government and its people. Greater and more meaningful interaction on both governmental and nongovernmental levels can help clarify our respective interests and concerns, reduce miscommunication and miscalculation, build mutual trust, and perhaps even contribute to North Korea becoming a more responsible, stable and integrated member of the international community.
A History of Disengagement and Cautious Engagement
Since the signing of the armistice in 1953, US administrations have largely disengaged from North Korea. As part of its broader efforts to contain the Soviet Union and build an alliance security architecture in Asia, Washington ignored Pyongyang diplomatically while maintaining a strong military posture in South Korea to deter North Korean aggression. This posture expanded to include nuclear-armed systems in 1958—a direct violation of the armistice agreement signed just five years prior—which helped midwife Pyongyang’s obsession with obtaining its own nuclear deterrent.
Only when the upstart country began posing a nuclear threat in the early 1990s did the United States engage in senior-level talks, which led to a new era of dialogue over the next two decades. Still, many US officials seemed reluctant to invest in long-term relations, believing that the regime faced collapse in the near term.
Even during the era of dialogue, Washington focused narrowly on its own goals without sufficiently addressing North Korea’s security interests. President Bill Clinton and South Korean leader Kim Young-sam proposed peace talks with North Korea in 1996, but discussions soured when Washington refused Pyongyang’s request to put US troop withdrawal on the agenda. Several years later, hawkish US officials in the Bush administration used evidence of North Korean uranium enrichment activity to “shatter” an existing bilateral deal, despite Pyongyang’s willingness to forgo this activity for security guarantees and a peace treaty. Diplomacy resumed under the “commitment for commitment, action for action” approach of the Six Party Talks, but Washington still insisted that significant denuclearization steps had to occur before peace talks could begin.
Pyongyang’s slow progress on denuclearization—punctuated by nuclear tests (2006, 2009 and 2013) and satellite launches using missile technology (2009 and 2012)—led to the return of a more hardline US approach. In its second term, the Obama administration set preconditions for resuming negotiations and rejected North Korean offers, such as a dual freeze on nuclear tests and US-ROK military exercises and peace discussions that excluded denuclearization. It also implemented a comprehensive pressure campaign against the Kim regime and refused humanitarian engagements such as the North’s offer to repatriate remains of US servicemembers still left in the country from the Korean War.
Later, the Trump administration adopted and “maximized” Obama’s pressure campaign. The overall pressure approach contributed to the longest period without sustained official negotiations—February 2012 to June 2018—over the last thirty years. President Trump’s abrupt shift to summit diplomacy and cordial exchanges with Kim Jong Un sparked a short period of haphazard diplomacy, but North Korea disengaged after the two sides failed to reach an agreement in Hanoi in 2019.
US efforts to isolate and pressure North Korea over the last decade caused unofficial and nongovernmental engagement to wither as well. Travel restrictions have prevented most US citizens from going to North Korea and, prior to President Biden’s reversal of Trump-era policies, travel bans prohibited North Koreans from coming here. In addition, US sanctions regulations severely inhibit Americans from interacting with North Koreans in third countries. Longstanding nongovernmental humanitarian programs have also faced severe restrictions and, in some cases, have come to a halt after decades of building trust. This overall policy of disengagement, together with economic sanctions and military pressure, has reinforced North Korea’s perception of US hostility and justification for further development of a nuclear deterrent.
Today, official US engagement with North Korea remains almost nonexistent. Diplomatic negotiations have flatlined since the failure of the Hanoi Summit in February 2019, and no congressional delegation has visited the North since 2008. North Korea has also closed the doors on most official contacts with Americans, partly out of frustration with the US negotiating stance and the Trump administration’s political uncertainty, but also, since January 2020, due to broader fears related to COVID-19 and other domestic matters.
The decades of neglecting North Korea and discounting its security interests have backfired to America’s grave detriment. Instead of abandoning its pursuit of nuclear weapons, the country now possesses 30 to 60 nuclear weapons without any constraints on making more, the capability of launching them at the United States and its allies, and a reluctance to give them up. Just as worrisome, the United States lacks the diplomatic relations, the nuanced understanding of regime thinking, the diversified communication channels, and the regular people-to-people interactions that can help mitigate a future crisis with an insecure, isolated, and nuclear North Korea. Adding fuel to the fire, the US media’s oversimplified and sensationalized portrayal of the North has intensified public perception of the country as a monolithic, immutable threat and diminished the space for dialogue.
As the diplomatic stalemate persists, the roster of US officials with significant experience dealing with North Koreans is being further depleted. One could argue that the Americans with the most insight on Chairman Kim, at least based on direct interactions, are Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo and Dennis Rodman. By focusing primarily on deterrence and pressure and neglecting engagement, the United States has, in many cases, pursued security with one hand tied behind its back.
The Benefits of Engagement
In contrast, US diplomacy with North Korea during the 1990s and 2000s showed that engagement could produce tangible security benefits. Former President Jimmy Carter’s meeting with Kim Il Sung in 1994, amid tensions about North Korea’s nuclear program and a potential military conflict, recentered the focus on diplomatic efforts, which eventually culminated in the bilateral Agreed Framework deal. This agreement froze North Korea’s plutonium reprocessing for eight years, without which the North may have produced enough fissile material for 100 nuclear weapons.
As talks continued in various forms through the Clinton and Bush administrations, Pyongyang—although exhibiting occasional outbursts of displeasure and hostility—remained relatively quiet, with few weapons tests between 1994 and 2008. Conversely, the absence of diplomacy and US shift to pressure between 2012-2018 coincided with the greatest advancements in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, including 4 nuclear tests of progressively greater yields and over 80 ballistic missile launches, including missiles demonstrating intercontinental range.
Tensions also decreased during the brief period of Trump-Kim diplomacy in 2018. Anti-US propaganda posters disappeared in Kim Il Sung Square, and North Korean media adopted neutral coverage of US actions. In addition, Pyongyang dismantled its Punggye-ri nuclear test site and instituted a unilateral moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range missile tests—only resuming short-range tests when talks broke down in Hanoi. North Korea also released 3 Americans and repatriated 55 boxes of US servicemember remains. The takeaway is clear: When the United States engages North Korea, hostilities decrease, relations improve and the world is safer for it.
The period of engagement also allowed both sides to address longstanding humanitarian needs and concerns. Faith-based aid organizations such as Christian Friends of Korea, Mennonite Central Committee, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and Eugene Bell Foundation established or expanded in-country programs in 1995 and began delivering humanitarian assistance to aid those suffering from the widespread famine. These programs continued and became some of the most consistent forms of engagement between the US and North Korean people. Between 1996-2005, the US military carried out 33 joint operations in North Korea alongside the Korean People’s Army to recover the remains of 156 US soldiers and repatriate them to their families. Likewise, US congress members and staff made almost annual fact-finding trips to Pyongyang, providing on-the-ground insights into North Korean society and the regime’s thinking as well as opportunities to discuss human rights concerns like prison conditions and Japanese abductees.
Furthermore, a proliferation of academic and scientific exchanges strengthened two-way sharing of knowledge with North Korea. Consortiums of US nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), civil society organizations and academic institutions hosted dozens of North Korean delegations in the United States, exchanging information on a range of topics like agriculture, energy, medicine and information technology. US and other Western scientists made trips to North Korea, too, including a 2013 expedition with North Korean counterparts that generated fresh insights into the active volcano at Mt. Baekdu (Paektu) and a joint publication on their findings. Nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker’s seven visits to North Korea, including four to the Yongbyon nuclear complex, revealed important information about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, such as uranium enrichment and civilian programs. Additionally, prior to the travel ban, dozens of American professors and staff taught English, finance, management, engineering and other classes to hundreds of North Korean students at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, enhancing their access to information and their ability to envision a potentially globalized North Korea.
Cultural and sports exchanges also helped to break down mutual mistrust by emphasizing our common humanity. North Korean taekwondo teams conducted demonstration tours across multiple US cities in 2007 and 2011, engendering goodwill on both sides. In 2008, the New York Philharmonic performed a nationally televised concert at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre, including the US anthem, Gershwin and the Korean folksong “Arirang.” One North Korean even noted: “This is [the] first time I have seen the American flag in North Korea.” These types of exchanges allow both sides to deal directly with real people and places rather than caricatures from media, and slowly dispel misperceptions and mistrust.
What would enhanced engagement look like? The first step would be to adopt and signal a comprehensive strategic effort at building new, peaceful US-DPRK relations, which would provide the basis for all-out engagement. Bold, proactive outreach rather than a passive, cautious approach is necessary to pique North Korea’s interest—as its rejection of a recent US offer for talks indicates. Washington could quickly reaffirm the 2018 Singapore Joint Statement, an agreement that Kim Jong Un himself signed and has yet to renounce, and express an interest in declaring an end to the Korean War, which would mute the initial signaling of a pressure-focused approach. Also, offering unilateral conciliatory gestures that do not undermine allied deterrence, such as partial sanctions relief and a moratorium on US strategic asset deployments to the Korean Peninsula, could incentivize North Korea to return to talks and reach an interim deal that freezes its nuclear program—all without coercion. Establishing liaison offices would help sustain diplomatic progress and communications.
An interim deal would not only set the foundation for more comprehensive discussions on peace and denuclearization but could also open the door for expanded security engagement. Beyond the traditional diplomatic and intelligence channels, Washington could offer talks between the US Department of Defense and the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Unlike past military talks at the demilitarized zone, which focused on managing the armistice and are now defunct, defense engagement at senior policy levels could address more strategic goals such as strengthening military ties, understanding KPA thinking, building its buy-in for diplomacy, exploring mutual force reductions and decreasing chances for miscalculation and conflict.
On the nongovernmental side, humanitarian and people-to-people engagements offer low-hanging fruit and should be reinvigorated immediately. The restrictions on travel to North Korea can be lifted by the secretary of state, which—once North Korea reopens from its COVID lockdown—would open up greater humanitarian access for private organizations to deliver aid during a critical moment of mounting needs in the country. Lifting these restrictions could also facilitate potential reunions of Korean Americans with separated family members in North Korea.
Likewise, many family members of the approximately 5,300 missing US soldiers in North Korea eagerly seek the resumption of remains recovery operations. Recently introduced legislation would address all of these issues as well as help expedite aid to North Korea by minimizing roadblocks created by sanctions regulations. Additionally, despite the limited number of North Koreans who visit the United States, easing restrictions on North Korean travel and visas would open up the potential for engagement through established governmental mechanisms such as the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program as well as through nongovernmental channels that center on academic, economic, scientific, sport and cultural affairs.
One potential area for greater US engagement is economic cooperation. North Korea is reluctant to pursue radical economic reform but has embraced limited marketization and economic experimentation, including joint ventures and special economic zones like the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mt. Kumgang tourism project. Non-US entities, such as the Singapore-based Choson Exchange, have worked to encourage positive change in North Korea by holding workshops on business, law and economic policy for aspiring North Korean entrepreneurs, specifically including women, who tend to be the breadwinners. Greater economic cooperation—ranging from development assistance to technical assistance in international accounting standards to best business practices—can encourage domestic growth and stability, which would help improve the North Korean people’s welfare and facilitate the country’s integration into the global economy.
Energy and environment offer another space for engagement. North Korea faces chronic energy scarcity due to economic underdevelopment and sanctions on oil imports. As a result, the country relies on “dirtier” sources like coal and synthetic natural gas for fuel and electrical power, while seeking greater advances in wind, hydroelectric and nuclear power. The government is also intensifying afforestation, land management and disaster risk reduction efforts to mitigate the impact of severe climate-related events like flooding, droughts and typhoons. In addition, North Korea’s mostly mountainous terrain contains vast mineral resources, including potentially the world’s largest reserves of rare earth elements, which have useful applications in high-technology goods such as smartphones, electronic displays, and electric vehicles. US-DPRK cooperation on many of these areas could be mutually beneficial but would first need to overcome relevant sanctions.
The United Nations (UN) is also a largely untapped resource for building bridges. US engagement on North Korea at the UN tends to be almost exclusively conducted at the Security Council in reaction to nuclear or missile tests or at the Human Rights Council for censuring the country on human rights grounds. However, as a peacebuilding organization, the UN has the technical and institutional capacity to conduct exchanges and trainings and provide backchannel support during negotiations. The UN Secretariat is comprised of skilled and knowledgeable diplomats who typically have longer tenure than their State Department and other national counterparts and, thus, represent a level of trustworthy institutional knowledge that could help bridge gaps between personnel and administrations.
It is important to emphasize that different forms of engagement can have different goals and be pursued with different timeframes. Security engagement that leads to, for example, a prompt freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities and US strategic asset deployments to the peninsula would provide immediate and broad benefits for both sides and potentially unlock further negotiations. On the other hand, the impact of people-to-people engagement is felt more at the individual level, but with large-scale implications and the potential to grow over time. Humanitarian assistance, in particular, can bridge these levels of engagement by addressing individual needs and building a solid foundation for geopolitical discussions. Ultimately, recognizing that peace is a process, all engagement should work collectively and cumulatively to soften mutual threat perceptions, build habits of trust and collaboration and reinforce risk-taking toward peaceful coexistence.
To be sure, North Korea also has a say in whether engagement is possible. Its government faces significant constraints and sometimes can take months to respond to proposals. Also, Pyongyang—even more than Washington—can act cautiously out of fear. It often retreats into its shell during periods of crisis, like the current COVID pandemic, restricts the movement of foreigners and citizens to maintain strict control, and can sometimes create an inhospitable environment through its harsh treatment of foreigners suspected of threatening behavior. But just as often, North Korea is eager to engage, invite foreign delegations, seek meetings to discuss the potential for peacebuilding, and explore academic and scientific exchanges. The United States needs to be ready when North Korea reemerges from its COVID lockdown. Better yet, it should encourage the North’s reemergence by signaling a robust commitment to peace and engagement and reinvigorating offers for COVID assistance. As North Korea has noted, in a message of both warning and invitation, it will respond to the US based on “power for power and goodwill for goodwill.”
The future of US-DPRK relations is still to be determined. If the United States continues a policy of isolation and pressure, North Korea will likely remain a hostile and inscrutable security threat, a chronic hotspot draining attention and resources from other priorities, and, in the worst case, one miscalculation away from precipitating a nuclear catastrophe. By shifting to a comprehensive engagement policy, however, Washington could work together with Pyongyang to develop more nuanced understandings of each other, enhance mutual trust and reduce threat perceptions, manage and decrease nuclear and conventional risks, and cultivate the North’s ability to participate as a more responsible member of the international community.