Engaging North Korea


U.S. relations with North Korea have been pushed into the background by events in the Middle East. But the so-called “North Korea nuclear issue”—“so-called” because the larger issue, which involves the interests of several countries, is security and strategic stability on the Korean peninsula—remains unresolved and potentially dangerous.

I and many other specialists have urged the U.S. and other governments to genuinely engage North Korea. But engagement doesn’t just mean contact or involvement; it means a process that includes reaching out to an adversary in efforts to catalyze new directions for policies on all sides. Genuine, effective engagement should: Create a political environment conducive to policy change, focus on joint actions that will move the parties from destructive conflict to collaborative transformation, involve incentives and mutual rewards in security and peace, and be undertaken in a spirit of mutual respect. Only genuine engagement with North Korea holds out hope of settling the nuclear issue and easing tensions that could again engulf the Korean peninsula in war.

In April 2014, David Sanger reported in the New York Times that President Obama’s North Korea specialists feel “stuck” on where to go next with North Korea, having explored every option. However, what the Obama administration has offered during its six years in office is not engagement but sticks and carrots based on North Korean concessions: If North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, the United States will then have dialogue with its leadership.  But engaging North Korea should not be exclusively about North Korean denuclearization. It should above all be about enhancing security for parties with interests in the Korean peninsula, such that nuclear weapons become irrelevant for strategic or political purposes.

There are many strategic reasons why the U.S. should initiate win-win engagement with North Korea, but here are just three.

First, every time North Korean leaders feel threatened or ignored, they undertake a weapons test or other provocative action, such as the July 2014 threat of nuclear attack on the White House, provoked by U.S.-ROK (South Korea) military exercises.  Those exercises may seem like standard procedures to us, but to the North Koreans, they are a reminder of their vulnerability. In November 2002, Kim Jong-il sent a written personal message to President George W. Bush that said: “If the United States recognizes our sovereignty and assures nonaggression, it is our view that we should be able to find a way to resolve the nuclear issue in compliance with the demands of a new century. … If the United States makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly.” That position has been restated a number of times since, and nonaggression assurances are best made through dialogue.

Second, by abandoning engagement, the U.S. strengthens the hand of those in North Korea’s leadership who doubt the usefulness of negotiations, and prevents opportunities for dialogue with leaders who want to reduce tensions and gain concessions. According to Charles Pritchard, in an October 2003 Brookings editorial, Kim Jong-il told Madeleine Albright in October 2000 that, with U.S. security assurances,  “he would be able to convince his military that the United States was no longer a threat and then be in a position to refocus his country’s resources.” There is no reason to think Kim Jong-un does not possess comparable authority and similar goals.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, engagement increases opportunities for direct contact with the North Korean people. We have many examples of how appreciative Korean people have been when they receive meaningful help. Focusing on young people, as the Pyongyang Project does, may provide a framework of support for the critical projects that NGOs carry out and potential transformations within the country.

North Korea is just as tired of talk for talk’s sake as the United States is. It too won’t “buy the same horse twice.” Fruitful negotiations can proceed only if Pyongyang sees engagement as strengthening regime and state survival.  North Korea would most likely be interested in proposals that:

– Provide some assurance against U.S.-designed regime change.

– Enhance North Korea’s legitimacy as an independent socialist state.

– Provide international guarantees of North Korea’s security and eventually end sanctions.

– Pave the way for long-term development assistance, increased trade and investment, and short-term food and fuel aid, thus also reducing dependence on China.

– Undermine arguments in South Korea and Japan for keeping open the nuclear-weapon option.

The United States and other nations should present a package to North Korea that, in return for verifiable steps to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, provides the North with security assurances, a proposal for ending the Korean War and signing a nonaggression pact with big-power guarantees (with China and Russia on board), and meaningful economic assistance from both NGOs and governments.

We have to accept the fact that the Kim regime is not going to just go away. Washington expectations that the regime will either self-destruct or wither away under outside pressure are mostly wishful thinking; by every indication Kim Jong-un remains firmly in command. If the U.S. and its allies continue to assume imminent regime change and a disengaged, zero-sum approach, they will embolden the most hawkish of North Korean leadership, providing them with “evidence” that more nukes provide the only real security against an untrustworthy America.

To be sure, engagement of the North does not guarantee its good behavior or friction-free interaction. But we should seriously explore what North Korean officials have long insisted: that if the United States abandons its “hostile policy,” the nuclear issue and much else can be resolved. We should test that view, one step—and one incentive—at a time.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly, and blogs at In the Human Interest.


Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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