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North Korea: Why Engagement Now?

12 August 2010

When Nixon met Mao in 1972.

Geopolitics drove the U.S.-China détente. It could do the same between Washington and Pyongyang.

Relations between the United States and North Korea, never particularly warm, have truly frosted over in recent months. The Obama administration, in the wake of the Cheonan incident, has added financial sanctions to a lengthening list of efforts to box in Pyongyang. In conjunction with Seoul, Washington has ramped up military exercises in the region. Six Party Talks have been suspended since the end of the Bush administration, and there haven’t been bilateral discussions for more than six months. Hillary Clinton has continued to speak of U.S. willingness to sit down and negotiate. But in Washington, engagement with North Korea is about as popular as BP stock. Anti-American rhetoric and threats, meanwhile, remain de rigueur in Pyongyang.

This downturn in relations coincides with an upturn in speculation about regime instability inside North Korea. Kim Jong Il’s health, complicated by kidney failure and partial paralysis, has reportedly taken a turn for the worse as outside observers identify signs of dementia (speculation that actually goes back at least several years). The political scene is populated by hardline octogenarians and a chosen successor, Kim’s youngest son, whose inexperience won’t win him much influence in a Confucian-inflected system tilted in favor of a narrow group of elders. Meanwhile, the government has taken several steps backward on economic reform, though popular involvement in markets remains high.  

A regime uncooperative in its foreign policy and unstable at home would seem ripe for containment if not actual rollback. A few more turns of the screw, according to conventional wisdom in Washington, and the North Korean system will collapse or, at the very least, become grudgingly cooperative. The United States might well have tried this approach before and failed—under the Clinton administration from 1993 to 1994 and the Bush administration from 2001 to 2006—but surely three times is a charm. The North Korean system is weaker than ever before, so goes the argument, and the combination of economic sanctions, political isolation, and military containment should do the trick this time around.

But this is wishful thinking. There are no signs from within North Korea that either a popular uprising along the Polish model is in the offing or a North Korean Gorbachev in the wings. Nor is it clear that what might replace the current regime—for instance, a military putsch—would adopt policies any more congenial to international opinion.

Engagement, the regime-change enthusiasts tell us, has palpably failed. North Korea has nukes, commits egregious human rights abuse, refuses to engage in serious economic reform, repeatedly threatens the United States and its allies, and torpedoed a South Korean ship. North Korea is unpredictable and treacherous. Engagement can’t work with such states.

And yet, engagement with such a state did work. A closer look at U.S. engagement with China in the early 1970s reveals that prospects were just as bleak then as they are today with North Korea. Washington nevertheless pursued a game-changing strategy with Beijing and, as a result, changed the face of geopolitics.


The Big Game Changer

The Nixon administration didn’t wait for the perfect moment to engage Beijing. China in the early 1970s was in the twilight of one of its most incoherent political eras. The Cultural Revolution had been raging since the mid-1960s, the country had descended into virtual civil war, and Mao Zedong was locked in a protracted conflict with his presumed successor Lin Biao. Mao himself, in his eighties, was in poor health. He had sunk into depression and, in January 1972, suffered a heart attack. The succession issue was unclear. Lin Biao died in a mysterious plane crash; Deng Xiaoping was under house arrest in Jiangxi. The future of Chinese communism hung in the balance.

The Chinese and the Americans, despite the domestic turmoil in their respective countries, were thinking big on the foreign policy front. China was deeply worried about a preemptive Soviet military attack. The Nixon administration, meanwhile, was also concerned about the Soviet Union and sought a way to constrain the rival superpower. Nixon, too, was thinking about achieving a major foreign policy victory at a time when the United States was bogged down in the Vietnam War. In January 1969, the president scribbled a note that read: “Chinese Communists: Short range—no change. Long range—we do not want 800,000,000 living in angry isolation. We want contact.”

Even with both sides converging in their geopolitical outlooks, a top-level meeting was not easy to arrange. The United States pursued back-channel exploration through Warsaw that led to 136 low-level meetings but no progress.

At this point, Nixon and his foreign policy advisor Henry Kissinger were not driven by economic concerns, such as exploiting the mythical Chinese market. In the early 1970s, the Chinese economy was in a woeful state. Economic reform, beginning in the countryside, would have to wait until the end of the decade. Trade was not the motivating factor on the U.S. side.

Nor did China’s overall foreign policy approach dissuade Nixon and Kissinger from their engagement effort. Beijing refused to give up the contingency of retaking Taiwan by force. China was still bankrolling any number of forces that were hostile to the United States, from national liberation movements in Africa and Latin America to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. China was even willing to go to war—with India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979—though it tended to be rather isolationist during the period of the Cultural Revolution.

The Nixon-Kissinger team was rather single-minded in their approach to China. They fundamentally didn’t care about what was happening inside the country or within the leadership. They didn’t care very much about China’s global involvement either. China was an important piece in a geopolitical game. And the Nixon administration was looking for a game changer that would fundamentally alter Cold War dynamics.


Lessons for U.S.-North Korean Relations

President Nixon and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, left, in Shanghai at the end of Nixon’s visit. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis, NYT

In the 1970s, the Nixon administration didn’t wait for the Chinese to work out their internal political squabbles before extending the olive branch. Nor did Washington wait for some sign that Beijing was committed to economic reform, rapprochement with Taiwan, or a repudiation of its support for leftist national liberation movements overseas. To the extent that Nixon or Kissinger considered such variables, they assumed that change would come after engagement or as a result of engagement, not prior to engagement.

With North Korea, the current crop of policymakers in Washington has put the cart before the horse. They see engagement as a reward for North Korea’s good behavior. We will work on a peace treaty to replace the current Korean War armistice if North Korea returns to denuclearization. We will remove obstacles that stand between North Korea and engagement with the international economic community if North Korea shows signs of economic reform. We will pursue diplomatic relations if North Korea improves its human rights record.

But as the case of détente with China demonstrates, such changes take place either as part of the short-term engagement process or, more likely, somewhere down the line when the leadership can safely embrace the changes as indigenous rather than imposed by outside actors. If we want to change the game with North Korea, we have to stop looking for indications that North Korea is already changing its game because we may well be looking for a very long time. If we want to influence the political succession in North Korea, the economic reforms, the environment of human rights, and so on, we can do so only by being a player. Right now, we’re on the sidelines, cheering or (mostly) booing, and vainly calling on the players we know (such as China) to act according to our wishes. That strategy has yielded practically nothing.

In addition to the question of sequencing, there are two other important lessons from the experience of Chinese détente. The first is geopolitical, the second diplomatic.

Both China and the United States were preoccupied with the rise of the Soviet Union in the late 1960s. Today, both Washington and Pyongyang are preoccupied with the rise of China. The Obama administration is desperate to recapture the ground lost by the Bush administration when it ignored Asia for the better part of two terms in order to focus on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Beijing gained considerable economic and political leverage in the region during this period.

Pyongyang, meanwhile, has a great fear of dependency on the Chinese. This dependency is enshrined in the word sadaejuui, or flunkeyism, which defined the tributary relationship that once bound Korea to China and which serves today as the antonym to juche, or self-reliance, the nominal philosophy that governs North Korea. North Korea tries as best it can to efface China’s role in saving the country during the Korean War. It has reluctantly opened up its mineral resources to a voracious Chinese extraction industry, relies now on Chinese trade to offset the decline in inter-Korean relations, and still depends heavily on Beijing for food and energy. It remains distinctly uncomfortable with this reliance on its considerably larger and more powerful neighbor.

The United States and North Korea, in other words, could be driven by the same geopolitical considerations that pushed Mao and Nixon together: a desire to constrain the other elephant in the room. Pyongyang could diminish its dangerous dependency on Beijing by negotiating a deal with Washington. And Washington could drive a wedge between North Korea and its primary benefactor, reduce Chinese influence on the Korean peninsula, and find a new way of inserting itself into a region that has witnessed a relative decline in U.S. influence over the last decade or so. Analogies are, of course, imperfect instruments. North Korea is not quite the powerful balancer that China was in the 1970s. But by engaging North Korea as part of a regional strategy that includes strong relations with other powers wary of Chinese influence such as Vietnam, the United States can prevent the resurrection of the Chinese tributary system that held sway in the region for hundreds of years.

Geopolitics drove the U.S.-China détente. It could do the same between Washington and Pyongyang.

The final lesson of the U.S.-Chinese détente is secrecy. Nixon and Kissinger pursued their policy with utmost delicacy, shielding even the State Department from news of the initial contact. The deal was deliberately worked out as a whole, not piece-meal, to avoid having this or that provision be challenged at the expense of the entire new relationship. Game-changers of this nature usually begin in secrecy. Consider the Oslo accords, negotiated in secret over the course of 14 meetings in two years. The breakthrough in U.S.-Libyan relations was also achieved after nine months of secret talks.

Any transformation in relations between the United States and North Korea requires comparable secrecy, at least at the beginning. Any president that publically endorses engagement with the longest running adversary of the United States would come under immediate criticism, from naysayers within the administration and certainly from political opponents in Congress and the media.

Is such a strategy worth the risk? With China, the United States was dealing with an unpredictable leader at an unpredictable time, but at some point Washington had to grapple with the reality of such a big country as China. North Korea, on the other hand, is small, with a population fewer than 25 million people. What North Korea has, however, is nuclear weapons—and this fact has pushed the United States to pay attention to a country it frankly would prefer to ignore (or, at minimum, subcontract the containment policy entirely to the South Koreans). North Korea is also in a vital location. Resolution of the North Korean issue, if done more on U.S. than Chinese terms, could provide considerable long-term economic and political dividends for the United States.

All strategies have drawbacks. The overture to China led to Taiwan losing its UN seat. Washington looked the other way when Pakistan, which served as the intermediary for Kissinger’s approach to Beijing, slaughtered as many as a million Bengalis in what was then East Pakistan. And the Nixon administration endured some criticism for appearing to kowtow to Mao (on February 28, 1972, after Nixon returned from Beijing, the Detroit Free Press published a headline that read “They Got Taiwan; We got Egg Rolls”).

There will be inevitable drawbacks to North Korean engagement as well. Human rights will not be at the forefront of the negotiations. South Korea, like Taiwan in the 1970s, may well feel slighted or worse. But the benefits in terms of peace and security in the short term and economic and social transformation in the long term far outweigh these drawbacks.

The Obama administration will encounter serious challenges to its domestic agenda after the mid-term elections this fall. It will continue to struggle with foreign policy debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. A game changer with North Korea could be the triumph that Obama needs to rescue the remaining two years of his term. Perhaps the president already realizes this geopolitical truth. Perhaps even now Obama is scribbling a note to himself in the Oval Office that reads: “North Korean Communists: Short range—no change. Long range—we do not want 25,000,000 living in angry isolation with a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. We want contact.”

Reader Feedback

17 Responses to “North Korea: Why Engagement Now?”

  1. […] make ever more political and economic concessions to China is abhorrent.” As FPIF’s John Feffer notes, the Korean word summing up this state of submission is sadaejuui, which loosely translates to […]

  2. J says:

    USA, not only China has prefered divided Korea.

    USA need army base(which China cannot accept)and N Korean market is not big attraction. Thats one reason Korean war was not ended.

    S Koreans and US oftenly say US army presence even after “reunification”

    USA established relations with China in 1070s which enabled inter-CHinese trade now. Germann unification came just after 2000. They were prepared. East Germany was accepted by other countries and they could travel to and watch West German TV.

    Korea? Not prepared. Still in cold war and biginning of new cold war. In 1990 many Koreans was hopeful about unification but after failure of 1995 agreement and tension, N Korea’s survival tric of Nuke appeared.

    Somebody say US didnot solve but worsened N Korea Nuke problem.

    Interestingly, Park Jung-hee, father of now president -elect, made same plan in 1970s to survive after Carter’s withdrawing of US army.

    So, USA must change its approach. N Korea may consider abandon if security is guaranteed. N Korea will try to maintain and empwer its status in the competition with S Korea. So its complicated game but US has not shown fundamental interest in changing its approch.

  3. […] Active engagement does not have to happen within the framework of the Six-Party Talks, which has been a lovely idea on paper but largely ineffectual in practice. The United States may be better off by engaging directly with North Korea in delivering aid and building confidence. From a comparative perspective, North Korea’s adversarial politics and international isolation resemble that of Chinese politics and practices in the1960s when China shut itself to the rest of the world and adamantly pursued its defunct socialist policies. This points the way toward a possible détente relationship between the United States and North Korea. In the 1970s, United States extended an olive branch to China despite no signs that Beijing was committed to economic reforms, rapprochement with Taiwan, or a rejection of support for leftist national liberation movements overseas. There is hardly any reason not to pursue a similar path to engage with North Korea before the North commits itself to economic reforms or returns to denuclearization, as analyst John Feffer argues. […]

  4. Marcus Brown says:

    Not only does South Korea outspend the North 4 to 1 in military spending, the north is estimated to spend 25% of its GDP on its military. You do the math, that means South Korea at 3% of GDP is spending as much on its military as the ENTIRE North’s GDP. This gap is actually growing with the South’s economic growth every year. The North is caught in an unsustainable position of losing ground more and more every year to the South.

    Its so called nuclear program is a last grasp at keeping the regime in power. It will collapse upon itself sooner than most suspect….don’t forget, the Soviet Union had the worlds largest nuclear arsenal and it fell without a single shot being fired.

    Imagine the North Korean military coming through all of the so called tunnels they have supposedly dug right in to Seoul and seeing every one so well fed. Nothing like proof that your so called “god” like leader has been lying to you pretty badly. Ask any North Korean defector of their shock when leaving North Korea, whether to China or South Korea

  5. Rudy Bes says:

    An excellent article, in which John Feffer makes several key statements. The ultimate goal of engagement should be the reunification of Korea, not the eradication of North Korea. The latter has consistently insisted on bilateral engagement with the US, and it is becoming a nuclear power to this end. In the past, including the present, engagement with North Korea has been conditional. I believe that to be effective, engagement must be unconditional. This will require a mutual change in perception on the part of both the US and North Korea. The US views communism – a one party system – as undesireable and dangerous. And North Korea has had repeated negative experiences with invading colonial powers. This mutual perception needs to change. Containment didn’t work with Saddam Hussein, and it won’t work with North Korea in the long run, either. I suggest that the US try a policy of uncontainment – in other words, goodwill. The Northern Limit Line is the key stumbling block at present. It is unfair and unjust to North Korea; it is putting them at a commercial disadvantage with respect to blue crab fishing, and the North Koreans refuse to recognize it. Addressing this issue may be the game changer that is required. Down the road, and looking at the example of Vietnam, a socialist market economy may be the answer to North Korea’s economic woes. It is already heading in this direction, with large farmers’ markets.

  6. Gordon Longhouse says:

    The difference between China and North Korea is that there will always be a China whether the US likes it or not. This is not necessarily the case with North Korea.

    The previous US policy of isolating China was failing as it was the US itself that was becoming isolated as allies such as Canada and Australia recognised China and de-recognised Taiwan. There is no such dynamic happening with North Korea.

    Instead North Korea appears at its most vulnerable as it undergoes a succession crisis. I see no reason why the US or South Korea ought to make things any easier for the Kims than they are right now and every reason to maintain every pressure short of provocation to war.

    When Churchill said that democracy was the least bad form of politics he undersold the one thing that democracy does better than any other system and that is replace one ruler with another.

    Dictatorships are terribly bad at this because a dictator has to worry that an able presumptive successor will fail to wait his turn. The result is that the dictator either grooms lots of potential successors (vide Hitler)risking civil war or none(vide Brezhnev) risking hollowing out the ruling class.

    North Korea has tried to square this circle by the monarchical route: son inheriting power from father. There are problems with this however. There are issues of legitimacy. The Choesons created an ideology of neo-Confucianism to justify their rule: Kim has communism which doesn’t do nearly so well.

    There is no gene for political competency. Kim must have recognised this as he passes over two older off-spring to find a choice that won’t cause the world to burst out laughing. It seems unlikely that the passage of power from father to son in these circumstances is assured.

    Although the chance that the North may collapse or fall into civil war is low, it does exist. As long as this is the case, a policy of engagement is counter to the interests of the West.

    When Nixon and Kissinger and Nixon engaged with China they had a reasonable assurance that any agreement they came to with Mao and Chou could be made to stick. Until the succession to power is worked out no one in North Korea can make this claim.

    So what should the US do? Pretty much what they are doing: putting as much diplomatic pressure on the North as is consistent with the peninsula remaining peaceful.

  7. […] in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il in Changchun: Commentary By adamcathcart BEIJING — Jimmy Carter hardly rehabilitated the malevolent North Korean regime by showing up in Pyongyang, but the country’s communist leaders were undoubtedly glad to see him.  Kim Jong Il’s […]

  8. obmaofcn says:

    Gonzalo Vergara, no, cannot do that! When U.S. troops begin withdrawal from Iraq, the United States began to lose the Middle East. Of course the U.S. has lost the moral high ground. Throughout the world, what the United States has not lost is only the East Asia, where people see the United States as a paradise, an own goal for future growth. In East Asia, now the only anti-American country is North Korea. But in all peace-loving countries of East Asia, North Korea is extremely isolated.
    In addition, I feel the so-called national and disputes between countries has passed, and now humanity faces a more serious problem: environmental pollution, ecological balance, population problems, which require our joint efforts of people on Earth, which kinds of efforts can only be achieved in a peaceful environment. If the outbreak of World War III, I believe that will destroy all human in the earth.
    So I strongly call for the U.S. government and President Obama that the United States must abandon this Cold War mentality, peace and friendship with all countries, respect for other nation’s cultural traditions, do not export democracy, faith and values.
    Finally, I would like to remind that the United States has lost the Middle East, South America and Africa; she cannot lose the East Asia!

  9. Excellent comparative analysis and focus on the opportunities available rather than impediments. I hope that Secretary of State Clinton and her senior advisors take note–if they have not already begun to move in this direction.

  10. obmaofcn says:

    Very interesting article. But I want to say that the author does not understand the tributary system in China’s history. The starting point of you article is from concepts of the Western state system. In fact, in Chinese two thousand years of history, basically there is no concept of country or nation.

  11. Commentator says:

    Written from the viewpoint that any reporting we have of history is necessarily partial, and there is more to be gained by looking at the facts of a situation, in so far as those facts are available to us.

    It strikes me that there was significantly more success in engagement with North Korea before the US came on the scene. I would ask any interested observer to look at the different categories – political, military and so on and compare the situation then with the situation now. It is also worth comparing the amount of resources spent then and now. Most crucially of all the Other Nations, despite covering every base, are lacking intelligence know-how of what is actually going on inside North Korea. North Korea has become considerably more secretive and it is simply not known what help is available. The sinking of the ship from South Korea – although North Korea has always disclaimed responsibility – seems to indicate that North Korea retains an independent right to act when it feels it’s necessary.

    So what can be done about the situation? Any disinterested observer would suggest the first thing is to remove the US from the case completely, due to the very poor record of results in relation to resources expended. This is not to apportion blame, but simply to take a disinterested look at the facts. The United States can get lost in detail, and has an extremely poor record of seeing another country’s point of view. That lack is crucial when a country is as different from the rest of the world as North Korea and the rest of the world would be remiss in not removing the United States from the case completely. Historically, South Korea has had a far greater success in engaging with North Korea, and their relationship has broken down only since the US became involved. It strikes me that negotiations with South Korea, without the US, would lead to a far better outcome with far less expenditure of resources. I understand there are some due on August 20th, for the purpose of ratifying what has already been agreed. Quick results with South Korea, and the stabilizing of borders and economies, while not able to integrate the North, would at least contain the North, as it is neither of their interests for the South to lose their economic sources of supply. Since the involvement of the United States Korea’s position has hardened and integration is no longer possible. The attempted dissolution of the north could give rise to some very real fears, for after all, despite an extensive study, we still don’t know how North Korea operates. Containment seems like the best option available.

  12. John Feffer says:

    Sorry, I meant to write that South Korea outspends North Korea 4 to 1 (by the most conservative estimate). That gap grows every day.

  13. John Feffer says:

    In response to Catman:

    1) Engagement with North Korea on the level of detente with China has not been tried. When the Carter/Clinton team negotiated the Agreed Framework, the United States pledged political and economic engagement that Congress ultimately refused to support. George Bush came into office and quickly reversed the Clinton engagement policy of the late 1990s. A similar conditional engagement process failed during the second half of Bush’s term. The bottom line: we haven’t tried anything more than half-hearted engagement because Washington has always hoped that the regme in Pyongyang would collapse and make engagement unnecessary.

    2) North Korea indeed devotes a large amount of its budget to the military. But it is outspent by South Korea by more than 40 to 1. North Korea’s ability to take over South Korea by force (or strategem) is virtually non-existent. Engaging North Korea will not enable the country to catch up with the South, much less the U.S.-South Korean military alliance.

    3) As Zhou Enlai once said, it is too soon to say about the French Revolution. So, yes, of course, we can’t provide a verdict on the Chinese transformation. But first of all, we were not in a position to “allow” communism to collapse in China. Even if the Tiananmen activists had succeeded in 1989, it is not clear that a non-communist government would have come to power. Second, anyone who has visited China in the pats 15 years, talked to Chinese in China, or paid even scant attention to what’s going on over there would be able to say that the situation has improved immeasurably for the vast majority of Chinese people. We have engaged China economically. Third, if we sat down with China to talk about our mutually, wasteful military expenditures, we might actually prevent the emerging cold war that is engulfing our two countries. I’m not happy about China’s military spending. But do you think that Beijing might just be a little concerned with our $700 billion military budget, our military exercises in and around China, the wars we’re conducing on China’s borders, and the alliances we’ve cemented with China’s neighbors?

  14. […] excellent 38 North reminds readers that the conventional wisdom on North Korea — i.e. that “A few more turns of the screw […]

  15. Catman says:

    This article completely ignores two important facts:

    (1) Engagement with North Korea has been tried already–and the only long term result was their development of nuclear weapons and a strengthened military. Unlike communist China–whose only rival was the insignificant Taiwan–North Korea remains deeply committed to dominating and/or taking over its more populous and prosperous rival, South Korea. There is simply no way to strengthen North Korea and not expect them to devote the vast majority of its resources towards this end. Even China recognizes this and is careful not to give too much aid to them at any one point for fear of regional instability and an arms race amongst its neighbors.

    (2) The long term wisdom of Nixon’s propping up of Mao’s regime and exporting all possible manufacturing jobs there is yet to be decided. Had communism there been allowed to collapse as elsewhere there would have been a much greater possibility of a friendly government eventually establishing itself there. As it is now, there is still a government which must legitimize itself with old cold war alliances and anti-American propaganda. We may have created a monster which will certainly become the dominant military as well as economic power in the world within a decade or two.

  16. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tim Shorrock, kiliffe. kiliffe said: RT @TimothyS Engagement with North Korea? What Obama can learn from Nixon's trip to Mao's China (@johnfeffer ) […]

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.