Reorienting US- North Korea Diplomacy Away from Denuclearization (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Jay Lee, Spring 2024 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The United States is at an impasse with North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or DPRK). To make advancements towards peace in East Asia, it must reorient its foreign policy objectives away from ensuring Pyongyang’s complete denuclearization to one that encourages mutual benefits centered around human rights and humanitarian issues. The United States must take dramatic steps to prevent North Korea from shutting Washington out entirely and drawing closer to U.S. adversaries.

The current U.S. approach, which is essentially a passive, open call for diplomacy, is problematic and will continue to encourage North Korea to seek closer relations with other countries hostile to U.S. interests. As North Korea becomes further entrenched in the networks of adversarial nations like Russia and China, it will be encouraged to support aims that work against U.S. interests. The problem with the Biden Administration’s stance is that it hinges on an implicit stipulation: that North Korea must be willing to denuclearize completely, a stance that North Korea would not agree to for a multitude of reasons. Instead of treating diplomatic interventions as a small step towards normalization, the United States is insisting on a condition that North Korea would never agree to, stalling talks before they can begin. While the Biden Administration claims that the United States is open to dialogue without preconditions, a pattern of summits without any results has taught North Korea that Washington will only deal with Pyongyang if it agrees to denuclearize. Therefore, North Korea is incentivized to seek support elsewhere and provide other countries with economic and military support to oppose the United States. If the United States does not pursue active diplomacy with North Korea, it risks North Korea being fully enveloped in the circle of its adversaries and unlikely to ever seek peaceful relations with the United States.

The United States must reorient its strategy away from being centered around denuclearization of North Korea and instead pursue advancements in humanitarian issues where both the United States and North Korea can make mutual gains. By concentrating on relatively apolitical issues focused on improving the lives of average citizens in North Korea, the two countries can make incremental steps towards a sustainable peace. North Korea would be able to get some assistance to modernize and improve the lives of North Koreans in rural areas and the United States would be following through on its commitment to human rights around the world. At the same time, the improved communication channels and trust built through these practices would contribute to a sustainable security framework in East Asia that does not rely on a continued heavy military presence on the Korean Peninsula.

If the United States seeks to prevent its adversaries from working together against U.S. strategic interests and to create a sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula, it must use exchanges across humanitarian issues to engage North Korea. By doing so, the United States can further its own interests while also providing North Korea with humanitarian assistance it greatly needs.

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