How Diplomacy With North Korea Can Work

A Narrow Focus on Denuclearization Is the Wrong Strategy

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean Director of the United Front Department Kim Yong Chol meet at the Park Hwa Guest House in Pyongyang, July 2018. Andrew Harnik / Pool via REUTERS

At the end of last week, the next phase of U.S.–North Korean diplomacy got off to a rocky start in Pyongyang. Following a set of talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the North Korean Foreign Ministry criticized Washington’s “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.” Pompeo maintains that the meetings were “productive.” Pompeo was right, in the sense that the talks again showed why too narrow a focus on denuclearization has been and continues to be a recipe for failure. A one-track devotion to ending the nuclear program will force all other important issues to queue up behind it. As pressure mounts to resolve the lead issue, the whole diplomatic process could stall or even fail, leading to crisis once again. In contrast, a broader process would actually do more to ease progress on denuclearization, as well as multiple other fronts.


The recent crisis created by North Korea’s continuing nuclear and missile tests was quite dangerous. It now appears that around the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018, the North Korean government decided to suspend its test program and make a big shift to concentrate instead on reform of the North Korean state and economy. Despite the flood of commentary, outsiders have very little evidence about when and why Pyongyang made this decision.

Although South Korean diplomacy and the inter-Korean summits certainly mattered, it is hard to know whether the U.S.–North Korean summit and the related concessions were necessary to get the suspension of the North Korean tests. But with the crisis temporarily defused, what matters now is to construct a diplomatic strategy for the next phase. 

The strategy should assume that the North Korean government is itself uncertain about what comes next. And as the just-concluded talks in Pyongyang illustrated, the strategy should not assume that North Korean denuclearization will or can occur rapidly. 

A key objective for the next stage should be to sustain diplomatic momentum over the next year or so, 2018

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