North Korean leader Kim Jong Un laughs during his visit to the Kangdong Precision Machine Plant, January 16, 2015.
KCNA / Courtesy Reuters

On January 10, Pyongyang offered a concession in its standoff with the West: It would temporarily halt its nuclear testing if Washington would cancel its upcoming military drills with South Korea. Although surprising, such a gesture is not new. Pyongyang has been softening its tone for some time now, as a possible sign that it is ready to move beyond its usual mode of communication—boorish threats and missile launches—and toward greater engagement.

The thaw began in September, 2014. After a 15-year absence at the United Nations, Pyongyang sent Ri Su Yong, its foreign minister, to New York to speak before the General Assembly where he made a call “to prevent war and safeguard peace” in the Korean peninsula. In October, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un mysteriously disappeared from public view for a month, top officials made an unprecedented appearance at the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon and proposed resuming high-level meetings with the South. Soon after, as an ostensible olive branch to Washington, Pyongyang gradually released three U.S. citizens who had been held in North Korean labor camps, some for evangelism, which is illegal there. At the end of October, Pyongyang and Tokyo made progress in ending decades of chilly relations after the abduction of possibly hundreds of Japanese citizens during the Cold War. Although the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations, North Korea welcomed a delegation of Japanese officials for the first time in ten years to discuss new investigations into the hostages’ whereabouts. North Korea even reached out to Moscow in mid-November, sending Choe Ryong-hae, a senior official close to Kim, on an eight-day tour of the capital. There, he met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who said, “A further deepening of political ties and trade and economic cooperation is definitely in the interest of the peoples of both countries and ensuring regional stability and security.” In another surprising move, during his new year’s address, Kim Jong Un expressed an interest in meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye.

BEIJING'S DISAPPROVAL

Some experts consider Pyongyang’s so-called charm offensive simply “erratic,” citing the minor military provocations against South Korea that followed a week after the visit to Incheon last October. The hacking of Sony Pictures—for which North Korea vehemently denies responsibility—also lends itself to the view that North Korea’s foreign policy is incoherent and uncoordinated because the country is politically unstable and that factionalization may even bring the country to sudden collapse. Although popular in many Washington circles, this view is far from plausible.

When new elites, mostly from the military, scramble to fill a power vacuum—such as the one left by the early December, 2013 execution of Jang Song Taek, the uncle of Kim Jong Un and formerly the second most powerful man in North Korea—minor political frictions or conflicts are unavoidable. But tensions do not necessarily equal instability. There have been no signs of any major power struggles within the ruling elites since Jang’s execution and North Korea’s economy is relatively stable and growing. Although the machinations of Pyongyang’s inner-circle are notoriously opaque—making any commentary on its strategy little more than an educated guess—trends over the past year point to consolidation and centralization of Kim’s power, not its disintegration. That means Pyongyang’s recent overtures may represent renewed calculations among its leadership, and not the politics of faction rivalries.  

North Korea’s motivations for such a policy shift are twofold. On the one hand, it is likely that Pyongyang is finally realizing the unsustainability of military and political brinkmanship: blackmailing the United States with nuclear threats, bullying South Korea with missile launches, and diplomatically entrapping China, which fears destabilizing an already unpredictable regime could trigger a crisis. On the other, it appears that Beijing is no longer treating Pyongyang as a special ally. Its selective neutrality and even open opposition to North Korea’s provocations, particularly concerning its recent nuclear tests, is apparent. At times, Beijing has even denied shipments of fuel and food to its erstwhile friend

The Beijing–Pyongyang relationship further deteriorated after the purge of Jang, since China had just arrested Zhou Yongkang, its own third most powerful politician. Both men had been in charge of bilateral relations and their removal left the two countries without any reliable high-level personnel to tamp down rising tensions. Meanwhile, the relationship between Beijing and Seoul has grown closer than ever before, forged by deepening economic ties and shared political interests. Last July, Chinese President Xi Jinping snubbed Pyongyang by visiting Seoul first, an unprecedented move for China’s usual tour of the Korean peninsula. In November, China and South Korea sealed their new partnership by concluding two years of discussion over a free trade agreement, although Seoul has yet to ratify the agreement.

Pyongyang has thus come to realize the political and economic dangers of relying solely on China, and is now testing the waters with other countries, particularly the United States, to see whether they are open to easing sanctions and opening up trade.

OUTSOURCING DIPLOMACY

How then should the Obama administration respond? Skeptics might argue that Pyongyang’s charm offensive is opportunistic and merely a temporary change—negotiating with it or relaxing sanctions would only allow the country to benefit economically while it gets to keep its nuclear program. As the argument goes, the United States should continue strangling North Korea until Pyongyang finally admits defeat and negotiates a complete de-nuclearization.  

Unfortunately, the chokehold approach is based on an increasingly out-of-touch assumption that breaking North Korea through sanctions is actually possible. The reality is that, as onerous an ally as North Korea can be, China fears the consequences of destabilizing it, including an influx of refugees or violent clashes within North Korea. Beijing will most likely continue providing some aid to its prickly neighbor to keep it afloat. Russia’s new willingness to throw perks Pyongyang’s way, will make it even more difficult to successfully isolate North Korea under U.S.-led sanctions.

The other alternative that has been floated is for the United States to launch so-called exploratory talks with North Korea. Such a dialogue would supposedly allow Washington to test North Korea’s willingness to negotiate over its nuclear program. But, in reality, Pyongyang is unlikely to give up its best deterrent, most potent bargaining chip, and powerful domestic propaganda tool anytime soon. And, on the U.S. domestic front, the new Republican-led Congress would most likely block any attempt by the Obama administration—especially after it ordered re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba—to strike a deal with yet another “rogue” state. With a myriad of more urgent foreign policy challenges in the Middle East, opening negotiations with North Korea is rather ill-advised.

But there is a solution to dealing with North Korea that does not involve taking either the soft or hard approach. Washington could “outsource” diplomacy with North Korea to its two regional allies—Japan and South Korea—by nudging them to initiate and carry out a policy of engagement by strengthening political and economic ties. The strategy would involve encouraging Japan and South Korea to strengthen their economic ties and discuss their outstanding issues with North Korea, such as the whereabouts of the Japanese abductees; reuniting families that were separated by the 1950-53 Korean War; or Seoul’s May 24, 2010 sanctions against North Korea for sinking one of its navy ships that killed 46 sailors. This more gradual approach, that involves Japan and South Korea engaging simultaneously with North Korea to repair their damaged relations and rebuild trust, could eventually open channels for negotiations over non-proliferation and possibly even de-nuclearization. One potential avenue for resuming these discussions is the six-party talks.

By avoiding direct involvement, Washington could avoid any political backlash and benefit from an increased ability to bend Pyongyang’s arm, since once it is economically entangled, sanctions will likely have more bite. Outsourcing would also allow Washington to gauge Pyongyang’s actual motives—is this month-long charm offensive a genuine attempt to move away from nuclear brinkmanship and toward multilateral diplomacy?

Another benefit of the outsourcing strategy is that it complements Washington’s goal to turn Japan into a more robust regional power. Japan is currently making efforts of its own to transition from a peripheral player in the Korean peninsula, narrowly focused on its own abductee issue, to a responsible stakeholder capable of building regional peace. As part of that initiative, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has tentatively sought to expand the role of its military, a move that has irked South Korea. The resulting tension has complicated U.S. efforts to cooperate with the two countries as a part of its rebalance toward the Asia–Pacific. The outsourcing approach would allow Japan to take the initiative in engaging North Korea, opening a rare window of opportunity to work closely with South Korea and to demonstrate its commitment to building regional peace. Diplomatic cooperation, rather than military ambition, may be the formula for strengthening Japan’s position in the region.

Washington’s outsourcing approach also offers the best chance to usher reconciliation of the two Koreas. Not only do Washington and Seoul share certain political objectives when it comes to North Korea, such as reducing military tension in the peninsula and encouraging Pyongyang to engage in multilateral talks, but South Korea also shares ethnic, linguistic, and cultural similarities that would allow them to reach out and transform the North Korean society; for example, family reunification and creating more industrial complexes like the one in Kaesong where dozens of South Korean firms employ over 50,000 North Korean workers.

While many factors account for Seoul’s caution in utilizing these tools, its handling of Pyongyang is undoubtedly influenced by Washington. Indeed, President Park Geun-hye’s highly publicized “trustpolitik”—a policy that would reward North Korean cooperation and crack down more severely on provocations—never quite took off during the first two years of her presidency. Park’s administration has appeared wary of diplomatic tensions that would result from engaging Pyongyang without Washington’s blessing, an experience the Roh Moo-Hyun administration, during 2003–08, had to endure when its efforts to nurture warmer relations with North Korea clashed with the George W. Bush administration’s determination to isolate the regime. By greenlighting North–South cooperation, Washington would give Seoul the nudge it needs to increase high-level bilateral talks and expand economic ties with Pyongyang. One way Washington can immediately boost Seoul’s confidence is to stop any further retaliation over the Sony hacks or adapt its upcoming joint military drills in a way that signals it’s willing to negotiate.

By outsourcing, Washington need not overstretch itself or face political backlash. But dismissing Pyongyang’s charm offensive as just another antic would be a massive missed opportunity.

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  • JUNG-CHUL LEE is an associate professor in political science at Soongsil University in South Korea. He is currently a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s Sigur Center.
  • INWOOK KIM is a doctoral candidate in political science at George Washington University.
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