Reimagining creative diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea

The division on the Korean peninsula is one of the longest holdouts from the Cold War. While an armistice agreement in 1953 brought a ceasefire in the Korean War, a final peace agreement was never reached. Even today, narratives surrounding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) are limited by this Cold War mentality.

As with any country under authoritarian rule for decades, there are concerns about human rights abuses, transparency and individual freedoms such as speech and religion. Yet President Nixon went to China in 1972 when Mao Tse-tung was in leadership and the U.S.-China relationship was hostile, demonstrating that engagement is possible, despite disagreement.

With North Korea, U.S. policies have rarely sought to address concerns directly, instead using them as cover to ratchet up sanctions and isolation in hopes of voluntary nuclear disarmament by DPRK. In addition, the U.S. is rarely willing to shine a spotlight on its own human rights abuses or its nuclear arsenal of more than 6,700 nuclear weapons.

Considering ways to compel North Korean leadership to end their nuclear development is a popular theme for some pundits and analysts. Yet many analysts and observers point out that before discussing denuclearization, Pyongyang must feel secure.

John Delury, an academic and longtime observer of U.S.-DPRK relations, says that “North Korea will start focusing on its prosperity instead of self-preservation only once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction….The world can best help most North Koreans by relieving their deprivation and bringing down the walls that separate them from the outside world.”

It will take creative measures to begin to break down the walls that many countries have built through sanctions and policies of isolation.


Current U.S. policy toward DPRK

To date, a peace treaty has never been signed to officially end the war and the U.S. relationship with North Korea (or lack thereof) continues in a stalemate. Lacking a definitive resolution, North Korea has remained isolated; fear and mistrust have devastated diplomatic relations between our two countries.

These hostilities have ebbed and flowed for decades but were exacerbated by the Obama administration’s increased militarization of the Asia-Pacific region. As tensions mounted around military threats, there was no escape valve for the building pressure because traditional channels of diplomacy do not exist between the U.S. and DPRK. The Obama administration held to a policy of “strategic patience” but the wait-and-see approach yielded few results.

While the details of the Trump administration’s policy toward DPRK are still elusive, the rhetoric and limited actions from the administration indicate they are operating on a lukewarm version of strategic patience, renamed “maximum pressure.” So far, most of the pressure has been placed on China to deal with North Korea, thus absolving the U.S. government of direct engagement. Of greatest concern is the threat of military action which looms large over the new administration’s Korea policy.

Each year, further sanctions from the U.S and United Nations are meant to pressure North Korea toward unilateral nuclear disarmament. But isolating North Korea in the global community has not produced the desired effect. If anything, it has driven DPRK’s government to further develop their nuclear capabilities.

As North Korea threatens the use of missiles and rockets with further range, the U.S. plays its games of intimidation through biannual military exercises in South Korea of U.S. military personnel permanently stationed at the border and throughout South Korea. These personnel represent the longest permanent U.S. military presence in the world since World War II. The cycle of threat and retaliation from both sides has not made any advances towards disarmament or peaceful relations.


Recommendations for future policy

Providing a reconciliatory presence in a time of hostility is the guiding vision for our work in DPRK. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is uniquely positioned as an organization that provides humanitarian assistance in DPRK while also advocating for a path toward engagement and dialogue to reduce hostilities at a governmental level.

In Washington we speak to the U.S. government about creative ways to work toward dialogue and open a door for people-to-people exchanges that could begin to thaw this relationship. Coming to an agreement on humanitarian issues or retrieving the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War are small steps that could lay the groundwork for dialogue on other important issues like nuclear disarmament. Although many U.S. government officials claim to have tried “everything,” there has been little appetite for using diplomatic solutions to end the years-long impasse.

Publicly, many U.S. policymakers are skeptical about making progress with DPRK. Their votes for sanctions or threat-making regarding nuclear weapons are largely unchallenged and are an easy political “win.” Privately, many acknowledge that the long-standing policy of wait-and-see has not yielded results. Members of Congress need to hear support from their constituents for engagement–peacemaking possibilities before military action–that could move our countries toward pursuing a new future of peace.

With increasing volatility in the Asia-Pacific region and threats of escalating U.S. military involvement, voices for engagement and diplomacy must come to the forefront. There is a paucity of diplomatic imagination when it comes to North Korea, but focusing on humanitarian issues and taking small steps toward dialogue are responsible ways the U.S. government can work toward engagement. Sanctions and isolation have not proven effective in bringing peace to the Korean peninsula. It is time for a fresh approach. –Charissa Zehr