Argument

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

Ending North Korea’s Isolation Is the Only Solution Left

It’s time to consider what’s never been tried before.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
People walk past a television screen showing Kim Jong Un speaking in front of a bank of microphones.
People walk past a television screen showing Kim Jong Un speaking in front of a bank of microphones.
People watch a television broadcast showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Seoul railway station in Seoul on June 5. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

In the time that I have been following events in East Asia, starting with more than a decade of coverage from bases in Japan and China beginning in the late 1990s, it has sometimes seemed like I have seen every permutation of possible diplomatic responses to the challenges that North Korea poses to the international system, including the development of weapons of mass destruction and the systems that deliver them.

There were frequent stretches during my years in Japan when I spent far more time in South Korea than at home in Tokyo. Much of that work was focused on the seesaw of events in North Korea ruled by the Kim dynasty. Periods of cautious diplomatic engagement and even moments of charm alternated like the seasons with deep freezes, hostile language, and the reverberation of war drums.

On two occasions, I made reporting trips to North Korea in an era when this was still exceedingly rare. During the first in August 2002, I took a berth on an overnight voyage by South Korean Coast Guard cutter from South Korea to the North Korean city of Kumho, where an international consortium had laid the foundation for the construction of a proliferation-proof civilian nuclear reactor. It was intended to provide electricity for the power-starved country and, more importantly, show through an exercise in trust-building that Pyongyang could improve its situation by gradually opening up to the outside world and abandoning its then still infant nuclear weapons program.

In the time that I have been following events in East Asia, starting with more than a decade of coverage from bases in Japan and China beginning in the late 1990s, it has sometimes seemed like I have seen every permutation of possible diplomatic responses to the challenges that North Korea poses to the international system, including the development of weapons of mass destruction and the systems that deliver them.

There were frequent stretches during my years in Japan when I spent far more time in South Korea than at home in Tokyo. Much of that work was focused on the seesaw of events in North Korea ruled by the Kim dynasty. Periods of cautious diplomatic engagement and even moments of charm alternated like the seasons with deep freezes, hostile language, and the reverberation of war drums.

On two occasions, I made reporting trips to North Korea in an era when this was still exceedingly rare. During the first in August 2002, I took a berth on an overnight voyage by South Korean Coast Guard cutter from South Korea to the North Korean city of Kumho, where an international consortium had laid the foundation for the construction of a proliferation-proof civilian nuclear reactor. It was intended to provide electricity for the power-starved country and, more importantly, show through an exercise in trust-building that Pyongyang could improve its situation by gradually opening up to the outside world and abandoning its then still infant nuclear weapons program.

Later that year, I flew in then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s airplane for a summit with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that offered the seeming prospect of a lasting rapprochement between the two countries. Washington was quietly hostile to this diplomacy, and it soon came to naught. By the end of that momentous year, the volume of threatening language being exchanged between Washington and Pyongyang had become so great that my editors made me spend a lonely Christmas in Seoul just in case a war broke out.

This was a decade with a striking abundance of highs and lows. Earlier that decade, I had covered the so-called Sunshine Policy of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, a hero of that country’s struggle for democracy in the 1970s and 1980s. As leader of the South, Kim also pushed for trust with the North, allowing tourists from his far more prosperous country to visit specially created North Korean enclaves near the border separating the two countries, thereby infusing the North’s flailing economy with badly needed dollars. This led to carefully staged but nonetheless tearful family reunions among relatives who were separated by the border—produced by the armistice at the end of their war in the 1950s. Sunshine Policy would also run its course and was eventually abandoned.

I witnessed then-U.S. President George W. Bush name North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, leading to a hard-line American approach to Pyongyang. The United States was still deceptively close to its ephemeral unipolar moment, and the cartoonishly tough members of the George W. Bush administration, many of whom I met in South Korea or Japan, seemed to think that posturing and bluster would force the North Koreans to change their policies toward nuclear armament.

Throughout these years, I watched the North fire off increasingly capable missiles, including some that flew over Japanese territory. This continued years after my departure from the region, with tests of ballistic weapons that are said now to be capable of striking almost any part of the continental United States.

From New York, I watched, almost stupefied, as then-U.S. President Donald Trump, seemingly unprepared and going by his gut, met the most recent North Korean leader—Kim Jong Un, the grandson of the country’s founder—at the demilitarized zone I had visited so many times just around 30 miles from Seoul.

Trump spoke of exchanging love letters with his much younger Korean interlocutor, but this diplomacy too—like all that had preceded it—led to no substantial breakthroughs. Some had held out hope that the two leaders’ second meeting at a summit in Vietnam in 2019 might produce an agreement on arms controls for the Korean Peninsula, but Trump rejected Kim’s offer to freeze operations at the country’s old graphite reactor at Yongbyon as inadequate, and this diplomacy, like all of the others before it, fizzled out.

This brings us to where things stand today, and back to the question of whether I have indeed seen everything—that is, whether everything has truly been tried by this point to rein in the threat of nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia. When I began covering North Korea, the country was believed to possess two still-untested atomic weapons and was firing off little more than short-range missiles based on antiquated and easy-to-dismiss designs like the old Soviet Scud missile.

Today, a retired longtime U.S. intelligence expert on the country tells FP that North Korea probably possesses 50 to 60 such arms. It has become more and more adept at miniaturizing their design, and it has tested them too. In recent weeks, against a drumbeat of numerous missile launches, Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo have been warning of the likelihood of North Korea’s seventh nuclear weapons test, which it appears fully prepared for.

Today, not only does North Korea have intercontinental missiles, but Robert Carlin, a former CIA and U.S. State Department analyst I’ve known since the early 2000s, told FP the country is focused on acquiring both submarine-based missile capabilities and, arguably even more worrisome, tactical nuclear weapons. These pose extraordinary risks because they take decision-making responsibility out of the hands of a central authority and place it into the hands of battlefield commanders.

It is time to acknowledge that however desirable or even urgent seeming, no one, least of all Washington, has the ability to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Threats of force won’t achieve this nor will coalitions with neighbors, the occasional offer of carrots, appeals to the Chinese for help, or stringent economic sanctions. And if this is true, as I believe it is, it’s time to consider what has never been tried before: ending the state of hostility between Washington and Pyongyang that has fueled North Korea’s push for nuclear armament.

Most Americans are unaware that a formal state of war continues between the United States and North Korea, which (together with South Korea) never signed a peace agreement ending the Korean War. This should be made an explicit aim of U.S. diplomacy with a country that has long been described as one of the most isolated in the world. A goal of reducing and perhaps eventually eliminating nuclear weapons on the peninsula can be posited for some time down the line, but the only thing left to try now is determinedly reducing hostility and tension.

This does not mean unilateral disarmament by the United States or the increasingly capable South Koreans. What it should mean is a step-by-step reengagement with Pyongyang that aims to end its economic isolation and gradually enable the creation of a more prosperous North Korean society through trade and stepped-up human contact with the outside world.

Many people will find irresistible the temptation to reject this idea out of hand as appeasement and argue such an approach would only give North Korea the means to strengthen its military capacity even further. The problem with that logic is that as the world has seen, efforts based on sanctions and isolation have done nothing to prevent Pyongyang from already developing a devastating nuclear warfighting capacity. The best hope for peace may lie instead in convincing the North that it has little to fear from the outside world and can thus afford to incrementally relax its own posture and perhaps even normalize its relations with foreign nations.

Right now, Pyongyang appears to be betting that the era of U.S. influence in East Asia is on the wane and that China will continue to grow in relative strength, but even this could bolster the logic behind a historic change of course in Western diplomacy. As astute-seeming practitioners of game theory, the rulers of the Kim dynasty have always been wary of too much dependence on their next-door neighbor.

If Pyongyang uses the benefits of this relaxation to accelerate its investments in militarization, of course, it would be appropriate to suspend the experiment. Given that the country already possesses a robust nuclear deterrent capability, it is hard to see what the risk of breaking with past diplomatic approaches might be—at least in the short to medium term.

As much as this is an argument that aims to change the dynamic between North Korea and the United States and its Asian allies, it is also one about North Korea’s internal dynamics. Years before I covered that country, I covered Cuba, an officially Marxist-Leninist state under the tight control of a family. There, I saw firsthand how effectively former Cuban President Fidel Castro used the long-standing U.S. embargo of his country to mobilize popular support and legitimacy as well as rationalize his government’s economic failures. As with Cuba, relaxing barriers and engaging North Korea economically would gradually deprive the state of its alone-against-the-world ideology. And with growing prosperity would come more of a middle class in the country, meaning a swelling population of people more open to new ideas and less susceptible to totalitarian means of control.

This should not be confused with a dreamy suggestion that North Korea can be turned into a democracy any time soon through trade. Rather, it is an argument that a lessening of hostility through business and a less overt focus on military considerations by the United States, South Korea, and Japan can hardly produce worse results than what the world has seen over the last 20 years.

At some point, North Korea must be convinced that the returns on continual investment in nuclear weapons and delivery systems are becoming negative, not because of threats of countermeasures and retaliation but because the devotion of so many resources into high-tech efforts with virtually no spinoff benefits for civilians in a poor society locks everyone but a tiny elite into stunted lives. Opening the door a crack to the creation of a middle class might help nourish desires for better, and if it is applied sincerely and with patience, it will take away the excuse that the country’s failures to improve the lot of its citizens is the fault of hostile others.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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