During a recent visit to Seoul in South Korea, United States Special Envoy to North Korea, Sung Kim, expressed intent to resume talks with them as soon as possible. As Special Envoy, Sung Kim met with government officials in South Korea, like his South Korean counterpart Noh Kyu-duk. He emphasized that the U.S. “has no hostile intent” towards North Korea and is open to meeting with representatives “anytime, anywhere without preconditions,” as he said in an 23 August interview . This comes amidst the U.S. and South Korea conducting annual joint military exercises, which has deterred any progress made with regards to thawing relations with North Korea.
North Korea has called the military exercises a threat, and Kim Yo Jong, sister of leader Kim Jong Un, has warned there will be retaliation if they continue. Even though the exercises are meant to be “purely defensive,” as emphasized by Special Envoy Kim, there has been no response to any communications sent to North Korea. It shows clear discontent and the possibility of an imminent weapons test. But the recent freezing of relations is not surprising. Even as high-level communication has resumed between Pyongyang, the U.S. and South Korea in recent years, the agenda to push for denuclearization has alienated North Korea. They would be giving up a source of power and security assurance.
President Donald Trump made some steps by meeting with Kim Jong-Un for a summit held in Singapore, but achieved no long term results as agreements fell apart. Relations have once again reached a stalemate. North Korea seems more unwilling than ever to eliminate their nuclear program, while the economic sanctions against them by the U.S. and United Nations are holding steady. Throughout the years, the issue of North Korea and their pursuit of nuclear weapons has been something U.S. presidents have attempted to redress without much success.
Actions such as creating the Agreed Framework in the 1990s and negotiating through the Six Party Talks had good intentions. But the implementation of these agreements was not enough to deter North Korea from developing their nuclear program. To add, each presidency has tackled the issue with a different approach, whether that is with the hesitancy of the Bush administration or “maximum pressure” campaign by President Trump. The inconsistency and lack of agreement on how to best achieve North Korea’s denuclearization has led to today, where it seems negotiations are beginning near square one again.
One thing has not changed though, and that is how sanctions are being used as the bargaining chip, when in the years they have been imposed, they caused little change. If anything, the sanctions cutting off vital supplies to North Korea aren’t hurting whom they are meant to. They are squeezing the general population that is already suffering from lack of basic resources. Even though sanctions can be seen as a method of pressuring North Korea to pursue denuclearization, they may not be as effective in this case because of the structure of North Korean society.
To make substantial progress, what is needed is an outlook and approach that is more understanding of North Korea’s point of view. There also needs to be more awareness about the possible outcomes that could result from actions that are taken. It seems that many presidents are ignorant of North Korea’s motives and how they are a deeply proud nation that values power and development. The use of threats and coercive techniques only seem to be matched instead of being persuasive. Special Envoy Kim and President Joe Biden are taking a more neutral route by emphasizing that the U.S. “has no hostile intent,” and pushing for diplomacy. However, it remains to be seen whether it will be sufficient in shifting the trajectory for relations with North Korea. But as it stands, the U.S. still appears an enemy, something that the current approach will likely not change.
Past administrations have all pushed for denuclearization, including the UN, by using various techniques to pressure or negotiate with North Korea to disarm their nuclear program. But for any progress to be made, there should be a change in goals. Analysts have said it may not be possible that North Korea will be persuaded to completely eliminate their nuclear arsenal. Therefore, when Special Envoy Kim is calling for the U.S. and North Korea to engage in diplomatic talks, their nuclear program should not be the main topic of discussion.
If South Korea and North Korea can regain consistent communication, with the U.S. as an ally, then relations overall can improve. Additionally, perhaps North Korea would be more willing to negotiate their nuclear arsenal. Then, once talks begin, there can be a concrete and detailed agreement, unlike past arrangements, that would limit the amount and usage of their nuclear weapons, and can also be legitimately enforced. But that should be negotiated once relations with North Korea have improved, instead of impressing upon them a compromise from the beginning.
The other side of negotiations should be that the U.S. follows through on their part of the agreement, which is lifting more sanctions and ceasing military threats that could provoke a negative response. The U.S. and South Korea are allies and should be able to conduct military exercises without retaliation, but any unnecessary intimidation should be avoided. Overtime, as North Korea sees that the U.S. need not be a menacing presence on the peninsula, and continues to emphasize a more positive rhetoric, peace and security will be easier to maintain.
The U.S. and UN have also shown their concern for the humanitarian crisis that is occurring for the general population in North Korea and expressed their willingness to provide aid. Still, as a proud country, North Korea has denied assistance. Once talks begin again and relations thaw, perhaps North Korea would be more open to allowing outside help, which the U.S. should gently offer. Yet, it is difficult since it would require a systemic change for the population to recover in the long run. Overall, the goal should be to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula and the rest of the world, even if that requires a change in approach or point of view.
With the path that the U.S. and North Korea are on, it seems inevitable there will be more military engagement in the future if these disputes persist. The Biden administration should be careful with how they continue. Special Envoy Kim is right in advocating for negotiations and peace instead of rigid pressure. Nevertheless, anyone involved in negotiations should take a moment and think about perspective. North Korea is a unique country that runs differently and has its own goals unrelated to the international community. Perhaps it is useless to continue trying to reach an agreement relating to nuclear weapons, but it wouldn’t hurt to try to work together to find a secure middle ground. Deep down, harmony is what we are drawn to, but how that looks might be a little different.