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Flexibility Can Bring Pyongyang Back to Negotiations

Hard-line approaches to North Korea keep backfiring.

By , the Maria Crutcher professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, and , a senior research fellow on East Asia at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
People watch a television screen showing a North Korean military parade.
People watch a television screen showing a North Korean military parade.
People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast of a military parade held in Pyongyang, North Korea, at a railway station in Seoul on April 26. Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images

The United States has “high expectations for working with the Yoon administration on issues related to the Korean Peninsula,” the United States’ top envoy for North Korea stated while in Seoul last week. But those expectations may be misplaced, given that Washington appears unwilling to prioritize stabilization through a more flexible diplomatic strategy. 

To be sure, Seoul is taking a similar line. South Korea’s incoming conservative president Yoon Suk-yeol has promised to be tough on North Korea. Pledging to “teach [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] some manners,” the Yoon administration brings with it hopes of a more pliant North, in contrast with South Korea’s outgoing Moon Jae-in administration, which was more focused on dialogue and engagement.

For its part, the Biden administration has essentially replicated the policy of previous U.S. administrations toward the Korean Peninsula, continuing a “pressure and more pressure” approach: articulating a willingness to talk without any actual policies or practical measures designed to produce positive movement in U.S.-North Korean relations. 

The United States has “high expectations for working with the Yoon administration on issues related to the Korean Peninsula,” the United States’ top envoy for North Korea stated while in Seoul last week. But those expectations may be misplaced, given that Washington appears unwilling to prioritize stabilization through a more flexible diplomatic strategy. 

To be sure, Seoul is taking a similar line. South Korea’s incoming conservative president Yoon Suk-yeol has promised to be tough on North Korea. Pledging to “teach [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] some manners,” the Yoon administration brings with it hopes of a more pliant North, in contrast with South Korea’s outgoing Moon Jae-in administration, which was more focused on dialogue and engagement.

For its part, the Biden administration has essentially replicated the policy of previous U.S. administrations toward the Korean Peninsula, continuing a “pressure and more pressure” approach: articulating a willingness to talk without any actual policies or practical measures designed to produce positive movement in U.S.-North Korean relations. 

Given the absence of any flexibility on the U.S. and South Korean sides, it is unsurprising that North Korea has not responded to offers to meet. Although it was former U.S. President Donald Trump —not Kim—who abandoned diplomacy, the weight of the Washington establishment has since reverted to its familiar tools of sanctions, pressure, and maximal demands. 

The Washington foreign-policy establishment primarily views North Korea as a security threat to the United States, not as an actor in its own right. Discussions about North Korea tend to overlook U.S. actions that contribute to Pyongyang’s siege mentality, affirming its belief that it needs nuclear weapons to guarantee its own survival.

For example, commentaries by U.S. experts about the March 24 intercontinental missile launch and the accompanying video by Pyongyang focused heavily on the technical aspects of North Korea’s missile launch and weapons development. Context for why North Korea may have broken its self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and longer-range missiles was missing. Few analysts recognized how these tests may be partly in reaction to Washington’s reluctance to take steps to break the deadlock in talks. Yesterday’s military parade also drew attention to North Korea’s weapons capabilities. 

Although North Korea’s illicit activities, such as its recent cryptocurrency heist, are serious and worthy of public debate, so too is properly acknowledging de-escalatory steps by Pyongyang. For example, Kim Jong Un’s sister and senior politician Kim Yo Jong’s recent comments that North Korea would not attack South Korea without provocation and that its government opposes war was hardly covered in the U.S. media, especially when compared to the media coverage of Pyongyang’s missile tests. While there may be an understandable reluctance to accept rhetoric as opposed to action, ignoring rhetorical signs reduces room for diplomacy and understanding. Advocates of the “no first use” pledge on nuclear weapons also have been mum about Kim Yo Jong’s statement. Yet North Korea has made this same point consistently, echoing the United States’ own message on deterrence. 

Another common narrative in Washington is that when it comes to North Korea, the United States has tried everything and all past failures are North Korea’s fault. It is easy to claim that North Korea wants too much because it is taken for granted in Washington that the United States is a rational actor and North Korea isn’t. After the collapse of the February 2019 Hanoi Summit, Gary Samore, former advisor to former U.S. President Barack Obama on arms control, placed the blame for the summit’s collapse squarely on Kim, saying: “The ball is in Kim’s court to decide whether to abandon hopes of a quick and easy deal.” Samore described North Korea as having asked for a “sweetheart deal” with an “extravagantly high price in terms of extensive sanctions relief in exchange for the modest step of dismantling Yongbyon,” North Korea’s nuclear research facility. 

In the same article, Samore also admits that U.S. demands were very high—perhaps unreasonably so. Yongbyon has long been the focal point of the international community’s efforts to constrain North Korea’s nuclear program as the only known source for producing additional plutonium. Why then wouldn’t the United States take the very important first step of trading a few sanctions—which are clearly not working—to dismantle the Yongbyon facility? In pursuit of a big deal, Washington lost the chance for a catalytic small one. A “pressure first, negotiation second” policy toward North Korea may have thus far deterred renewed resumption of fighting on the Korean Peninsula, but such peace is temporary at best and illusory at worst. Sustaining a fragile status quo is not progress.

The United States has also reneged on some of its own commitments to Pyongyang. For example, the light water reactors for energy generation that were promised to Pyongyang under the Clinton administration’s Agreed Framework never materialized. The Obama administration’s “Leap Day Deal” of providing food aid in exchange for a freeze on uranium enrichment also unraveled due to an interpretation gap in what constitutes long-range missile launches. Washington has also sent mixed messages that undercut its broader North Korea strategy, such as when the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Banco Delta Asia for hosting $25 million of the Kim regime’s funds around the same time the September 2005 six-party joint statement was signed. In other words, failures in past denuclearization and peacebuilding efforts were not exclusively due to Pyongyang’s double-dealing

Over the past three decades, the U.S. goal of North Korea denuclearization has become increasingly distant. Yet efforts to reduce tension, build confidence, and stabilize the Korean Peninsula have been held hostage to this objective. There have been occasional actual give-and-take actions with North Korea, but such efforts were abandoned as soon as any difficulty was encountered. Most recently, during the 2018-2019 Trump-Kim summit diplomacy, Trump abandoned any pretense of diplomacy at the Hanoi Summit by abruptly attempting to pressure North Korea into an immediate abandonment of its entire nuclear and missile programs before the United States had made any concessions. 

So what can be done?

First, the United States’ needs to diversify the policy debate beyond a small group of policymakers and congress members in Washington. There are members of Congress who are calling for reform, and they should be part of the policy debate even if they don’t serve in national security committees. Rep. Ilhan Omar, for instance, introduced a bill called the Congressional Oversight of Sanctions Act that would strengthen congressional control and oversight over the use of sanctions by the executive branch. There should be public hearings and discussions about the objectives of U.S. sanctions against North Korea, ensuring they do not obstruct their overarching policy goals.

To prevent instability on the Korean Peninsula, Washington should actively test the proposition of whether Pyongyang is willing to engage in a security environment that does not involve having as many nuclear weapons. Instead of focusing on unrealistic goals of complete denuclearization all at once, Washington should consider more immediate steps toward that direction, such as engaging in arms control, missile and nuclear test moratoria, or other forms of diplomatic risk-taking in a way that advances U.S. interests. Other steps could include security assurances through formally ending the Korean War as well as a step-by-step process of reducing economic sanctions and North Korea’s growing strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. 

Indeed, a blanket acceptance of all United Nations Security Council resolution sanctions against North Korea, as noted in Section 3234 of the Senate-passed United States Innovation and Competition Act, only hardens the political environment and makes flexible diplomacy by the executive branch less attainable. Rather than viewing economic sanctions as tools to continually ratchet up and never dial back, they should be calibrated to motivate a change in North Korea’s behavior. The playbook of demanding that Pyongyang move first while withholding reciprocal measures until the United States determines that North Korea is sufficiently sincere has not worked and will not work. 

Finally, Washington and Beijing must figure out a way to work together on the North Korea issue. As a senior Chinese official told Korea experts at a meeting in Washington this month, the United States may not heed China’s advice, but it should listen to what China has to say. This comment was made in the context of the China-Russia proposal to lift certain nonmilitary U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea. And although the good faith of Chinese officials offering advice to Washington may be questionable, it points to the need to separate the North Korea issue from great-power competition. 

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Washington was unreceptive to the China-Russia proposal. Now, it will be almost impossible. Yet as North Korea’s missile tests and South Korea’s testing of submarine-launched ballistic missiles show, the status quo is fraught with risks for Washington and Beijing. Compromise must be found that involves Beijing, if not Moscow. 

U.S. President Joe Biden will reportedly meet with Yoon in Seoul next month, where North Korea will likely be a top agenda item. Avoiding past mistakes and being more open to smaller deals that involve some level of verifiable dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear complex for easing certain sanctions will be necessary to avert this slow-moving train wreck. 

David Kang is the Maria Crutcher professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and a nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Jessica J. Lee is a senior research fellow on East Asia at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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