This essay is part of a series, Pursuing Peaceful Coexistence with North Korea, that explores how the United States and South Korea can peacefully coexist with a nuclear North Korea. 

The September 13, 2023, meeting between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un in Russia’s Amur Oblast marked a significant crippling of the decades-long U.S. pressure-based approach toward North Korea. The strategy of isolating and pressuring North Korea through United Nations Security Council resolutions to compel its nuclear disarmament in exchange for providing normalized relations, economic aid and sanctions relief may or may not ever have been a winning strategy, but now is no longer viable. The strategy required cooperation among the United States, South Korea, China and Russia, but this now seems a distant prospect.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, pose for photos before talks in Vladivostok, Russia, April 25, 2019. The two met more recently in September 2023. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via The New York Times)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, pose for photos before talks in Vladivostok, Russia, April 25, 2019. The two met more recently in September 2023. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via The New York Times)

Although engagement with North Korea is not in the cards for the moment, the United States still needs to think through what its approach should be given the ineffectiveness of the pressure-based approach and the need to reengage with North Korea to reduce security risks.  Devising engagements that are win-win, founded on equality and not reliant on monitoring may allow for the incremental progress that can lead to more fundamental agreements down the road.

Moving Past Old Ways of Thinking

Dealing with North Korea will continue to be difficult as long as the United States sees the country as a problem to solve rather than as a relationship to manage. From the U.S. point of view, during the first decades of North Korea’s 70-year existence, the problem centered on supporting South Korea’s vision for reunification of the Korean Peninsula. In recent decades, the problems have focused on deterrence and denuclearization. These single-minded pursuits have gotten in the way of dealing with other pressing matters such as North Korea’s human rights abuses, conventional security risks, climate, energy, humanitarian crises and illicit criminal activities. With U.S.-North Korea relations hitting a low point, including Pyongyang spurning disarmament talks with Washington and abandoning the goal of peaceful reunification with South Korea, the United States must imagine engagement based on something other than unification or denuclearization.

To be clear, the denuclearization of North Korea need not and should not be abandoned as a long-term goal. Nuclear weapons are not the only threat North Korea poses, but they are the most grave. As President Joe Biden stated, denuclearization remains the “ultimate goal.” Ultimate can mean uppermost, or it can mean eventual. Assuming the latter meaning can give the United States time to work on it. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was one of the greatest accomplishments of 20th century diplomacy and is worth preserving. There are far fewer nuclear weapons states than there would have been without it.

However, insisting that North Korea must commit to near-term denuclearization at this point is a dead end, as is North Korea’s demand that it be acknowledged as a nuclear power. That standoff is self-defeating for both sides and should be set aside for future resolution. Denuclearization, like unification of the peninsula, can remain a long-term goal without getting in the way of near- and medium-term progress in other areas.

U.S. diplomatic engagement with North Korea has been moribund since the failure of the February 2019 meeting in Hanoi between then President Donald Trump and Kim. By all accounts, Kim considered the summit outcome a humiliation. It is likely that the September 2023 Putin-Kim meeting was a linear outcome of a North Korean policy reset that began after the Hanoi summit, including the military development plan announced at the 2021 Party Congress, and was aided by Russia’s need for help in the Ukraine conflict.

The Biden administration’s longstanding offers to meet “anywhere, anytime, without preconditions,” and Kim’s demand that the United States end its “hostile” policies, seem like bookends of a dormant diplomacy. Because the war in Ukraine, conflict in the Middle East and managing relations with China require the Biden administration’s attention, it is understandable that North Korea has fallen down the priority list for now, particularly with North Korea holding out no prospects for talks.

Is there anything worth talking about with North Korea other than denuclearization? With the dangers of a military conflict with North Korea growing as it improves its nuclear capabilities, the question might be reversed: Would it not be worthwhile to engage on almost any topic? It would be naïve to believe that engagement by itself can eliminate dangers or resolve differences, but it could build trust and pave the way for future serious dialogue.  

Three Conditions for Successful Engagement with North Korea

There is a difference between engagement and negotiation. Engagement is based on a search for commonality that does not necessarily require concessions. Negotiation, on the other hand, implies a search for an outcome that benefits both sides but falls short of what either side would ideally prefer. That is to say, a compromise.

Experience shows that engagements with North Korea are only likely to be fruitful if they meet three conditions. They should: (1) be wins for both sides rather than based on concessions; (2) be founded on equality, not as favors granted from a great power to a small state; and (3) not require on-the-ground monitoring. North Korea does not like to be observed, let alone inspected. Engagement on these bases may not provide major breakthroughs, but small steps may be helpful precursors to more fundamental agreements.

Condition 1: Win-Win, Not Concessions

At this point, it is difficult to see what the United States or North Korea would be willing to give up in denuclearization negotiations. Now that it is receiving renewed support from Russia and China, North Korea has less need for sanctions relief. The United States, for its part, would be unwilling to settle for only a temporary rollback of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. That might appear as acceptance of North Korea’s long-term possession of nuclear-armed missiles.

However, engaging on other topics, as discussed below, creates the possibility of win-win outcomes. Small-scale engagements that provide clear wins with minimal risks may be more palatable to North Korea than ambitious proposals that North Korea might view as having unpredictable consequences.

Condition 2: Equality in Status

Engagement is best founded on equality, or at least the appearance of equality, between the two sides. North Korea is more likely to respond to constructive engagement rather than appearing to be caving in to pressure. Although the North Korean regime’s rhetoric of invective seems to have little regard for other countries’ sensitivities, it craves diplomatic respect. North Korea claims to be a self-sufficient country that has no need for development assistance. It excuses its requests for food aid on the grounds that natural disasters or adverse growing conditions are beyond its control. The main problem with its food production is North Korea’s mismanagement of its agricultural sector, but it will not admit that.

When involved in cooperative endeavors, as a matter of ideology and pride, North Korea wants to appear as a full partner rather than a junior partner. North Korea will accept humanitarian assistance as an obligation owed it by the international community, but not if it is described as won by making concessions. Aid to the North Korean people is needed and should be provided, but that is not a type of engagement that will reset diplomatic relations.

Condition 3: No Foreign Monitoring

North Korea is allergic to any arrangement that requires foreign monitoring, or even observation, within its territory. In the past, North Korea has ordered International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors out of the country, refused food and medical assistance when it involved end-use monitoring and even restricted World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization teams from conducting needs assessments except in specified areas. This secrecy is to be expected given that North Korea restricts internal travel by its own citizens, highly limits internet access and tightly controls the activities and movement of foreign visitors. Any scientific, educational or cultural proposal that falls afoul of North Korea’s obsessive opacity is unlikely to be accepted or implemented.

Potential Areas for Engagement

So, are there areas for U.S.-North Korea engagement that meet the three requirements described above?

One potential area for engagement is the two countries’ shared interest in volcanology. Geologists are apprehensive that Mount Paektu is an active volcano that could erupt with devastating consequences for North Korea. It last erupted in 1903 and is expected to erupt every hundred years. The United States has similarly active stratovolcanoes, such as Mt. Shishaldin in Alaska, and Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker in Washington state, plus the experience of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. There have been meetings of North Korean and U.S. and British geologists in the past, so it is a channel that could be revived and expanded. The advantages of a joint U.S.-North Korea volcanology project are that the countries have similar concerns, both would benefit from being able to compare data and techniques, and working on mountainsides would keep U.S. scientists away from places where they could learn much about what the North Korean regime would consider sensitive.

Another area in which North Korea reportedly has conducted research is in drought-resistant plants. The North Korean Academy of Agricultural Science could work with either the U.S. government’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture or a leading university in agricultural research, such as the University of California, Davis, to help deal with the increasing occurrences of drought in both countries. 

There are other research and development topics on which U.S. and North Korean experts could collaborate based on win-win outcomes, the appearance of equality and minimizing North Korea’s exposure to foreign observation. Unfortunately, meeting these criteria means leaving out promising areas for cooperation, such as energy grid integration and public health delivery systems, because looking into them would reveal too much about North Korea’s poverty outside of Pyongyang. Topics of mutual interest that usefully could be pursued within the confines of conference rooms and laboratories in North Korea and the United States—obviating the need for field work—include: modeling improved treatments for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis; disaster management strategies, as both countries face an increase in natural disasters; and computer modeling of the effect of climate change on agricultural production, a topic of obvious interest to both countries.  

These proposals, while adhering to the three criteria for successful U.S.-North Korea engagement outlined above, are admittedly narrow and modest. They would not serve as a brake on North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, nor would they provide North Korea with the economic boost or international recognition it craves. But they would give the two governments reasons to resume dialogue, which would be a step in the direction of a future, nonconfrontational relationship between the United States and North Korea.

Mark Tokola is vice president of the Korea Economic Institute and a retired senior Foreign Service Officer.

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