The Last Stake to the Palisade: How to Engage with North Korea (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Dylan Motin, Spring 2023 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The United States faces a worsening balance of power against China and should partner with North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) to address it. Washington succeeded in turning adversaries into partners to face a greater common threat together in the past and can do this again with Pyongyang. Historical instances of normalization with former adversaries — most notably Yugoslavia — can serve as a blueprint to engage with North Korea while maximizing U.S. interests.
First, this paper explains why the United States should engage with North Korea. In recent years, China has increasingly swayed the Indo-Pacific region’s balance of power in its favor. Beijing has translated its massive wealth into a more formidable military and threatens to achieve regional hegemony. Worsening the situation, China can count on the now nuclear-armed North Korea to support its ambitions. Although Washington has sluggishly reinforced its regional posture and partnerships to contain Chinese power, it has difficulty following China’s breathtaking military build-up. A less adversarial North Korea would serve U.S. interests by helping Washington counterbalance China’s growing capabilities.

Then, this paper proposes a typology of past engagement with former adversaries. It discusses several types of alignment options and their associated benefits and costs, illustrating these alignment types with historical examples. Based on this typology, quiet, non-institutionalized security cooperation resembling the Yugoslav model would maximize U.S. interests while limiting potential costs. The paper makes the case that Washington should discontinue its confrontational stance toward Pyongyang in favor of a Yugoslav-like rapprochement. The paper proposes three realistic policies to kick-start rapprochement:

  1. U.S. policymakers should invest in discreet, low-visibility diplomacy to engage North Korea but eschew summits and public agreements.
  2. The defense community should plan for the day when engaging North Korea comes so policymakers can use the North Korean card against China to its best.
  3. Washington should encourage its partners to engage with North Korea to reassure Pyongyang and reduce its dependence on China.