An expert's point of view on a current event.

Kim Jong Un Could Use a Handshake, Too

It’s time for Obama to apply the lessons of the Cuba rapprochement to North Korea.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un waves a
North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un waves at the end of a major military parade to mark 100 years since the birth of the country's founder and his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012. The commemorations came just two days after a satellite launch timed to mark the centenary fizzled out embarrassingly when the rocket apparently exploded within minutes of blastoff and plunged into the sea. AFP PHOTO / PEDRO UGARTE (Photo credit should read PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

The contrast in America’s relations with its two remaining Cold War villains could not be starker. On Dec. 17, Barack Obama dropped a foreign policy bombshell, announcing that more than 50 years of isolation “has not worked” and the United States will be normalizing relations with Cuba. Yet in the same week, the abnormality of North Korea’s place in American life reached a new level of absurdity over the cancellation of the farcical film The Interview, which graphically depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Sony Pictures is reeling from a massively embarrassing November cyberattack — and the U.S. government claims Pyongyang is responsible.

It took courage and wisdom for the Obama administration to acknowledge that decades of isolating Havana did not work, and then devise a better approach. The time for a similar fundamental rethinking of the administration’s North Korea policy is long overdue. But the stakes of inaction with Pyongyang are a great deal higher than with Havana. Six years of relying on sanctions, and waiting for Beijing or Seoul to take the lead, has failed to slow Pyongyang’s progress towards nuclearization. Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist and North Korea expert at Stanford University, estimates that North Korea will likely have an arsenal of 20 warheads by 2016, up from about ten today — and that number will continue to grow.

Inheriting a strategy developed by George W. Bush, the Obama administration has long pinned its hope for progress with North Korea on Beijing’s willingness to push for denuclearization. The Pyongyang problem seemed high on the list of priorities for Obama’s November summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But for a summit that generated deliverables on climate change, maritime security, and visa policy, North Korea was conspicuously absent. Despite some new rhetoric that has signaled a cooling of bilateral relations, China’s policy towards Pyongyang is not going to change anytime soon.

If joint U.S.-China action on denuclearization remains at an impasse, perhaps inter-Korean dynamics could catalyze progress? Such hopes spiked in early October with the dramatic appearance of a senior North Korean delegation in Seoul. It didn’t take long, however, for inter-Korean relations to fall back into a rut. Just three days after the North Koreans arrived, Korean naval vessels fired at each other across their contested boundary in the West Sea. Three days after that, North Korean soldiers shot at balloons launched by anti-DPRK activists as they floated across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two countries, and South Korean soldiers returned fire.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has actually de-emphasized denuclearization in an attempt to better manage “conventional” risks in inter-Korean relations, as well as take some pressure off Sino-South Korea relations, which have markedly improved of late. But it also means that Washington would be foolish to look to Seoul to drive the denuclearization process.

If Xi and Park’s reluctance to start the heavy lifting on the nuclear challenge isn’t enough to prove that Obama’s preference for leading from behind won’t work, the other players in the region are even less reliable. Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing reinvigorated interest in diplomatic and economic engagement with North Korea — he recently invited Kim Jong Un to Moscow in May 2015 — while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pursuing a bold gambit to resolve Japan’s abduction issue in return for partial sanctions relief for Pyongyang.

Moscow, Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing all support denuclearization, but none are investing the political capital or taking the diplomatic lead required to make it happen.

The onus is on the United States. Can Obama be convinced to shift to a more proactive approach? Perhaps a ray of hope can be found in the unusual trip by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to Pyongyang in early November, a visit that resulted in the freeing of two Americans held there. The Obama administration claimed they sent Clapper because he was “not a diplomat” and therefore carried no broader foreign policy writ. But Clapper, following his instincts as an intelligence officer, wisely made use of his time on the ground in Pyongyang to get a read on the Kim regime, and in so doing laid conceptual groundwork for a very different approach to this final relic of the Cold War.

In recounting his trip to the Wall Street Journal, Clapper focused on three interlocutors — Minister of State Security Kim Won Hong, Director of Reconnaissance General Bureau Kim Yong Chol, and a young, unnamed escort. From these interactions, Clapper came away with a picture of North Korean politics fragmented along generational lines and divided into moderates and hardliners, with Kim presumably playing the role of arbiter. Nowhere did he imply that North Korea is on the brink of collapse, a persistent form of American magical thinking that distracts from a more realistic policy. Clapper’s impressions are in line with a growing body of scholarly work that depicts North Korea as a fragmented yet resilient authoritarian state.

This picture of how North Korean domestic politics works has important implications for U.S. diplomacy. Obama’s policy has worked off a series of assumptions, that North Korea is monolithic, anachronistic, evil, and fragile to the point of imminent collapse. On that basis, a policy of what U.S. officials have termed “strategic patience” might make sense. But if North Korea is here to stay, then sitting on one’s hands loses its strategic rationale. Being more proactive, flexible, and probing; strengthening the hands of North Korea’s moderates wherever possible; looking for pragmatic deals that advance American and regional interests; and, along the way, gaining a better sense of internal dynamics is a far smarter policy.

Clapper seemed to understand this himself. Asked by his young escort if he would be willing to return, he told the Wall Street Journal, “I said if I got an invitation I certainly would…. I do think there is the potential here for change and dialogue in the future.” However, the Obama administration, by defining even talking to North Koreans as a reward, has gone out of its way to avoid gaining direct knowledge or insight into North Korea politics, during a critical period of transition to the young and inexperienced Kim. U.S. policymakers are trying to change the behavior of North Korea’s leadership without interacting with them.

Is Obama’s “strategic patience” too patient? If he’s been waiting for North Korea to collapse during the recent power transition, it’s time to acknowledge that Kim appears to be firmly in charge, and the North Korean state fully intact. If he’s waiting for Pyongyang to return unilaterally to its denuclearization obligations under the September 2005 agreement, it’s time to recognize that the opposite has taken place –North Korea now has a full-fledged uranium enrichment program to complement its plutonium program: two nuclear tests, along with numerous missile tests have taken place on Obama’s watch.

The danger is real. Will Obama simply keep watch as North Korea spends the next two years building more bombs and testing more missiles? Will he wait in vain for Beijing to tighten the screws on Pyongyang or for Park to talk sense into Kim? Or, pondering the implications of the Clapper mission, will he ask his best North Korea experts to come up with new ideas for a more proactive, strategic and effective policy?

The fury over North Korea’s alleged role in the Sony hack will reinvigorate calls for more sanctions and punitive measures against Pyongyang. However, attempts to isolate North Korea for cyber-subversion — like for its nuclear weapons program — will probably aggravate the problem.

Only after the president outstretches his hand will Kim be willing and able to unclench his fist.

A version of this article appeared in 38 North, a website devoted to analysis of North Korea. 

Ed Jones/AFP

John Delury is an Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies and Underwood International College in Seoul, South Korea.