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Dialogue with North Korea must resume

Aug 08 , 2017
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Research Fellow, CICIR
  • Sun Chenghao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations


On July 28, North Korea launched its second missile within a month, which, according to some experts, is capable of reaching a wide swath of the U.S., including Los Angeles and Chicago. It is beyond doubt that the strategy of containment or intimidation adopted by the U.S. towards North Korea – including several rounds of international sanctions, military deterrence and cyber interventions – has failed to stop the development of the country’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

North Korea is nearing its ultimate goal of possessing full nuclear deterrent capability against the United States. The imminent threat produces a series of questions: Are we facing the last chance to stop North Korea by military means? What strategy will North Korea take after it becomes a nuclear country? If China and the U.S. cannot stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear country, will talks of cooperation on this issue resurface? What can China do to prevent the situation from deteriorating?

Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets for any of these problems. Take military action for example. No one can exclude the worst-case scenario of North Korea retaliating using nuclear weapons. Even if the success rate of the strike is 1%, nobody wants to risk it. The other options are also full of uncertainties. Solving the North Korea problem will be a long and arduous task, and as China and the U.S. grow closer together, cooperation is a process that the two sides should cherish.

For a rather long time, U.S. policy towards North Korea has been locked in a dilemma, essentially between U.S. willingness to make a deal with North Korea to persuade it to forsake nuclear weapons and ongoing domestic factors that make the deal hard to implement. For instance, the agreed upon framework signed between the U.S. and North Korea in 1994 was a good starting point to solve the problem, but the implementation of the agreement was troubled, especially when the promise of helping North Korea construct two light water reactors was not delivered on time. Therefore, North Korea saw the agreement as a delaying tactic rather than a genuine offer.

A similar case is the September 19 Joint Statement after the Six-Party Talks in 2005. Not long after the statement, the U.S. imposed financial sanctions on North Korea. The discordant actions sent confusing signals and made North Korea feel as though nuclear weapons was the only guarantee of national security and made it view proposals raised by the other parties more skeptically. Kim Jong-un, the young leader who has never dealt with China or the U.S. via Six-Party Talks or any other bilateral dialogues, will be more determined to develop nuclear capabilities as he grows increasingly skeptical about the effectiveness of the agreements.

The inconsistencies of U.S. policy towards North Korea stem from its domestic politics, as only a few political elites believe North Korea is a rational country that can be dealt with, while most people still treat North Korea as an existential threat. The domestic atmosphere makes it even more difficult for the U.S. executive branch to take a relatively soft approach, as Congress and the media might criticize it for doing so. These constraints might push both the U.S. and North Korea to more dangerous ground.

The inconsistencies also influence other countries, especially China. China is willing to cooperate with the U.S. on the issue, but vacillating U.S. policy hurts China’s influence over North Korea. This may push North Korea even deeper into isolation. A more isolated North Korea becomes more uncontrollable, which leads to fewer options for the international community to address the problem.

Ancient Chinese philosophy holds that as soon as a negative situation reaches its extremity, it reverses course. Since North Korea’s development of nuclear capabilities appears to have reached its own extremity, we might expect North Korea to now show more rationality, and return to the negotiation table. This will reduce North Korea’s hostility towards the U.S. and other countries.

If this happens, first the U.S. should consider some of China’s proposals. While North Korea is still very hostile towards the outside world, China is a country that the U.S. and South Korea can rely upon and may be the only nation that can influence North Korea. China has proposed a “dual-track approach” and “double suspension” in the hopes that all parties will first take a step back and then begin dialogue and negotiations.  North Korea once sent signals that it would stop tests of nuclear weapons and missiles in exchange for the ending of joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea. But the U.S. still insists on its outdated and failed policy of military deterrence.

If it is difficult for the U.S. to accept the whole package of “dual suspension,” it might consider some more subtle and minor changes of policy. For instance, they could adjust sanctions provisions slightly, reduce the scale of military exercises, keep a lower profile in encouraging defectors, and in return ask North Korea to reduce the frequency of its missile tests and to release U.S. citizens it detained. Those concessions will help North Korea feel less threatened, thus discouraging it from taking more unnecessarily provocative actions.

Second, the U.S. should consider supporting dialogues with North Korea, joined by additional parties through a variety of channels. Whenever North Korea makes breakthroughs on its nuclear capabilities, it releases some positive signals to test the response of other countries. On July 19, North Korea launched its “DPR Korea Tour” on its National Tourism Administration’s website in different languages to attract foreign tourists, unusual for a country that worried a lot about subversive plots by Western countries.

The next day, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, published an article arguing for the unity of the Korean ethnic nation. The article also blamed the Park Geun-hye government for current confrontations between the North and South, which to some extent responds to South Korea’s proposal to start a military negotiation.

The U.S. should perceive those signals positively and support official or unofficial bilateral dialogues between North Korea and South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. It should even initiate direct dialogues with the DPRK itself. This will help North Korea experience contact with the outside world and shore up its confidence, thus encouraging the country to return to the diplomatic route.

Last but not least, China and the U.S. should make concerted efforts to push forward trilateral dialogues with North Korea to pave the way for restarting official negotiations. After witnessing such a sophisticated strategy to develop nuclear capabilities, it’s very hard to claim North Korea is a totally irrational country. It is fundamentally different from terrorist groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda. Despite some vocal provocations and threatening videos, North Korea has never conducted any real provocative actions towards the U.S., whereas countries like Iran have directly challenged the U.S. military presence in its region.

China and the U.S. should be fully aware of North Korea’s traits of both arrogance and pragmatism. This understanding will help them in three-party talks via the New York Channel of communication or other channels arranged by China. This strategy will draw North Korea back to the negotiating table and reduce the uncertainties of the issue before it’s too late.

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