To help U.S. policymakers better manage the myriad risks they face on the Korean Peninsula, this report assesses whether and how to pursue national security diplomacy with North Korea. This concept of engagement responds to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 regarding the benefits and risks for U.S. national security. Persistent engagement with North Korea’s national security elites, the report argues, is a policy wager with a large potential upside and very little cost and risk.

U.S. President Donald Trump sits across from Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, during a February 2019 meeting in Vietnam. (Photo by Doug Mills/New York Times)
U.S. President Donald Trump sits across from Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, during a February 2019 meeting in Vietnam. (Photo by Doug Mills/New York Times)

Summary

  • Isolating North Korea from the United States and the international community is self-defeating. The sparseness of U.S. ties to North Korean officials magnifies risks related to crisis management, nuclear stability, and diplomatic negotiations.
  • U.S policy inadvertently increases the difficulty for U.S. officials to manage a host of security problems in Northeast Asia because it constricts U.S. interactions with North Koreans.
  • The United States has a substantial interest in using engagement with North Korean national security officials as a low-cost hedging option in U.S. statecraft.
  • Institutionalizing defense and intelligence diplomacy with North Korean counterparts puts U.S. officials in a relatively stronger position than the status quo to reduce geopolitical risks and influence events.
  • Thickening elite ties with a historical adversary puts the United States in a marginally better position to preserve nuclear stability, avoid war, and capitalize on opportunities for positive change as they arise.

About the Report

This report examines the benefits and risks to the United States of establishing regular diplomatic engagements with North Korea’s national security elites in an effort to improve the prospects of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. The report was commissioned by the North Korea program at the United States Institute of Peace.

About the Author

Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington. He also holds appointments as an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies. He is the host of The Un-Diplomatic Podcast and author of Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in U.S.-North Korea Relations (2016) and On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War (2018).

Related Publications

Removing Sanctions on North Korea: Challenges and Potential Pathways

Removing Sanctions on North Korea: Challenges and Potential Pathways

Friday, December 10, 2021

By: Troy Stangarone

Sanctions have been a key part of US and international policy toward North Korea since the Korean War. In more recent decades, sanctions have been used to deter North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs. This report describes the impact sanctions have had on North Korea and examines the question of whether a different approach—one focused on sanctions relief and removal—might better facilitate long-term peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Type: Special Report

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Is an End-of-War Declaration for the Korean Peninsula a Risk Worth Taking?

Is an End-of-War Declaration for the Korean Peninsula a Risk Worth Taking?

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

By: Frank Aum

As efforts to resume nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang go nowhere, the concept of an end-of-war declaration for the Korean Peninsula has become a polarizing topic in both Washington and Seoul. USIP’s Frank Aum explains how it could serve Washington and Seoul’s interests, how such a declaration could advance the peace process between North and South Korea, what risks it could pose and how the U.S. Congress could play a role in shaping such a declaration.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

Making Sense of North Korea’s Missile Test

Making Sense of North Korea’s Missile Test

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

By: Frank Aum

North Korea announced on September 13 that it had tested long-range cruise missiles over the weekend. It described the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance.” The test caused alarm in North Korea’s neighbors — South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies — as the revelation now puts both countries within striking distance. But despite the test, a spokesperson for the Biden administration said the United States remains prepared to engage with North Korea. USIP’s Frank Aum discusses the significance of the tests, the arms race on the Korean Peninsula, and what signals North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be sending to the United States with this latest test. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & PreventionMediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

The Case for Maximizing Engagement with North Korea

The Case for Maximizing Engagement with North Korea

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

By: Frank Aum;  Daniel Jasper

As the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review nears completion, there is growing worry that it could dig in its heels on previous U.S. efforts to change North Korea’s behavior through isolation and pressure. Early signals indicate the Biden team is prioritizing pressure among many options. Several experts, however, believe this approach will continue to fail because it incorrectly assumes North Korea will yield to coercive tactics and that China will cooperate in this effort.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Mediation, Negotiation & DialogueConflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications