US Korea Institute

Tuesday March 28th 2017
Subscribe to Our RSS feed@38NorthNK on Twitter
38 North offers informed analysis of events in and around the DPRK.

Subscribe for latest



Sympathy for the Devil ― How Best to Deal with NK

09 January 2013

This article originally appeared as a guest opinion piece on Korea Times on December 26, 2012. The original article can be found here

North Korea has successfully, sort of, launched a long-range missile.  We are outraged.  We want more sanctions; we want to pressure them till they say uncle or collapse.  We wonder how China could be so perfidious in failing to make Pyongyang behave.  We find it morally odious to talk to a regime that spends for rockets and nukes but allows it people to starve and puts others in concentration camps.  Only when they agree in advance that they will knuckle under will we talk to them.

But indignation, however righteous, is often the enemy of wisdom.  Reflection is a better ally.  Yes, North Korea is difficult to deal with and its regime treats its people unspeakably.  But if we are to deal with it (and, let’s face it, the place is not going to go away) we need to at least try to understand their viewpoint and understand our own weaknesses.  Let us ask some probing questions of ourselves and perhaps even look at history a bit from the other guy’s eyes.

North Korea says it was forced into the missile/bomb “deterrent” because of U.S. “hostility.”  Do we look hostile?  We signed the Agreed Framework in 1994 promising to build two nuclear reactors and deliver heavy fuel oil but implementation from our side was desultory (with many in the national security establishment arguing for inaction as regime collapse was imminent).  After the 1998 North Korean missile launch rattled us, the Perry Process concluded we needed to deal with North Korea, “as it is, not as we wish it to be.”   A missile moratorium ensued, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung went to Pyongyang to launch his Sunshine Policy, Jo Myong-rok (Kim Jong Il’s de facto No. 2) came to the White House and an October 2000  joint communique resolved to “fundamentally improve” relations and “formally end the Korean War by replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement with permanent peace arrangements.” Madeline Albright visited Pyongyang.  But President Clinton’s term ended before the joint communique could be acted upon.

North Korea kept on the trajectory, establishing diplomatic relations with the U.K., Canada, Australia and a host of EU and Asian countries and announcing tentative economic reforms.  In Pyongyang’s eyes, however, George Bush then slammed on the brakes, even naming North Korea part of an “Axis of Evil.”  Could the foreign policy of a major power turn 180 degrees on an election?

Or could momentum be restored?  A State Department official agreed with North Korean counterparts on the outline of a deal in September 2005.  Almost immediately Treasury sanctioned a Macau bank and sent officials around the globe warning all banks everywhere about transacting any business with any North Korean entity.  Certainly the negotiating right hand of a great power must know what the hostile left hand is doing?

The Sunshine Policy continued, with a 2007 summit of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il producing a flurry of new economic and security initiatives.  They came to a screeching halt upon conservative President Lee Myung-bak taking office in 2008.  Lesson learned in Pyongyang: yes, if your partner is a democracy, its policy can indeed change 180 degrees in a day.

More questions: Which is cheaper in the long run, a missile/bomb deterrent or a million man conventional army that eats up much of your command economy (especially one with obsolete weapons that couldn’t win a war anyway)?  If you are going to boost your economy, don’t you have to get rid of most of that overhang?

Are more sanctions really going to make North Korea cry uncle?  Look at a map; it has a long border with China.  If China and North Korea want to tango, then we are powerless to turn off the music.

And is China really writhing in agony about what to do with the recalcitrant North Koreans?  Or, if things do not devolve into an actual U.S. invasion, are things actually quite fine?  Does deepening economic dependency and Pyongyang’s isolation help to create the vassal buffer state that Beijing prefers as a permanent alternative to a unified Korea (which could prove to be prickly, allied to the US, and an economic competitor)?  But, do the North Koreans really want to end up a de facto province of China?

I visited Pyongyang in September 2010 as part of a delegation organized by the University of California San Diego, the Asia Society, and the National Committee on North Korea.  Major personnel promotions were announced while we were there that boosted the role of the party and government ministries and lowered that of the defense establishment.  Their meaning was explained to me by a high-ranking North Korean:  the military-first policy had served its purpose; now, with the “self-reliant deterrent” in place the emphasis will be on raising living standards; eventually North Korea has to deal with the U.S. face to face and resolve fundamental issues in an irreversible way; but first, the U.S. has to decide if its policy is hostility and regime change, or not.

It seems to me the North Koreans have been following that playbook, even with the transition to Kim Jong-un.  We seem to be thrashing about, red-faced and shouting with little purpose.

The North Koreans want lasting security but don’t want to have to learn how to speak fluent Chinese to get it.  The South Koreans want security and an end to the “Korea risk premium” that hinders their prosperity.  Both dream of a united Korea taking its proper place in the Asian constellation.  The U.S. wants to reverse nuclear proliferation and establish a stable Northeast Asian security architecture.

There will be a new president of South Korea soon.  She will make overtures to the North; both candidates felt Lee Myung-bak’s policies were bankrupt.  The new president will be in office for five years.  We will soon have a new secretary of state and a new secretary of defense; our president is in place for four more years.  Kim Jong-un was “elected” to a 40-some year term of office.  There are new faces in Tokyo and Beijing.

Even “as it is” there may well be a deal that can be struck with North Korea, and new administrations are in place in all the relevant capitals that can cement the deal before another round of elections.  But it will not be easy and we cannot break off for every crisis of the day and start negotiating about returning to negotiations.

Upon reflection, it is time to talk, and keep talking until the deal is done.

Reader Feedback

10 Responses to “Sympathy for the Devil ― How Best to Deal with NK”

  1. John Kenny says:

    I would like to see an overwhelming tactical strike on every single missle launch site and military installation that we KNOW exists in North Korea. This could be done within one hour utilizing the full power of the Seventh Fleet, leaving these cretins a smoking ruin. SOMEONE needs to deal these filthy despots a crushing blow, or they will CONTINUE to thumb their rotten noses at the civilized world, and remain a clear and present danger to the world. Dictators know that NOTHING but a “bigger sword” will bring them to heel. The “Kims” know very well that under this hellish liberal leadership we’ve had for YEARS, that the US is nothing but a paper tiger, and won’t do ANYTHING. We’re TOOTHLESS, and sad.

  2. John Koeman says:

    North Korean indignation is so much older. In his collected works Kim Il Sung explains how Korea was given to the Japanese as a result of the Taft-Katsura act.And now the Amewricans want to lecture us about human rights, the great leader concluded in volume 36. Bruce Cummings explains that the Korean war was waged at a time when ethnic US Koreans were barred from marrying caucasians in 15 southern states and were forbidden to own real estate property on the west coast. The US that fought in Korea in the early fifties bears very litte resemblance to the USA today. The old US resembled a dark version of apartheid South Africa. After the Korean war the US midwived the same people in South Korea that the Japanese had nurtured for decades. All prominent South Korean politicians even had Japanese names. Park Chung Hee served under the great warrior Tojo Hideki, the guy that led the attack on Pearl Harbor.
    I believe that the DPRK has more than enough reasons to hold grudges against the US and that there is a long way to go before an understanding can be reached.

  3. Constantin says:

    “We seem to be thrashing about, red-faced and shouting with little purpose.”
    I am yet to see westerners doing these towards NK.

    On the other hand, every day, most NK statements are vitriolic, i.e., they are genuinely “thrashing about, red-faced and shouting with little purpose,” while threatening almost everyone.

    The author seems to propose the way of appeasement.
    Why would the US have to appease and support a government such as NK’s?
    Does anyone believe that NK will give up its weapons, even for a peace treaty with the US?
    How long will it take after the treaty signing until NK will start threatening again SK and perhaps other countries nearby?

  4. 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.

    orea? 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.

  5. Paul says:

    “Tightening the noose” will squeeze the wrong necks and what do you mean by spilling over? Are there any countries in that region that look at that dystopain nightmare and say “If only….?”

    Clearly not “Talking” doesn’t work either. Look at Cuba as a good example of what 50 years of sanctions and silence will get you. That being nothing at all.

    We need to ignore the pompous bloviating that is only spoken for internal consumption and start some serious behind the scenes negotiating while the right governments are in place.

    Force doesn’t work. They have nukes and Seoul is on their doorstep.

    Sanctions don’t work. They are willing to let 90% of their population starve and they can blame it on the US.

    We need to act like grownups and take the bitter pill.

  6. John says:

    A good article, but recent developments show
    Hillary and other hardliners, including Susan Rice, succeeded in making future talks almost impossible with the
    new SC sanction against NK.

    Can Kerry reverse the dangerous course?
    He got a challenging job ahead.

  7. Victor Hsu says:

    Spencer is right on with his analysis. Important changes have been taking place in the DPRK. Among the most significant is the reemergence of the Workers’ Party and the decreased emphasis on the military. Economic development and improving the agriculture have been highlighted as THE top priorities for 2013 though these twin concerns were already expressed by Kim Jong Il in the two years before his death. One more interesting change in terms of style and openness of Kim Jong Un was his state of the nation address to the nation. His father opted for the annual New Year Editorial to inform the world of the DPRK’s policies.
    As regards the strong words to the ROK concerning the latest UN sanctions, one should note that Lee Myung-Bak is still the President and that the ROK is a member of the UN Security Council. President Park Geun-Hye will have to walk a fine line between the UN Sanctions and her desire to reengage the DPRK. The Inter-Korean relations are headed for a new and positive chapter.

  8. mateo says:

    “Talking” with this rogue state like any other terrorist state.has ALWAYS proved ineffectual. Isolation and increased sanctions have kept n.Korea from spilling over. Tighten the noose!

  9. Steffie says:

    …After the 1998** North Korean missile launch rattled us, the Perry Process concluded we needed to deal with North Korea

  10. SK says:

    Yes, you look very hostile, indeed as you all know…

    Did you find the WMD in Iraq, yet?


    Will you re-attempt to assassinate Hugo Chavez, again?

    which nations on earth doing so as your so called the USA does?

    No answer?

    Then I should call you an idiot.

    Study more not for the CFR but for your own sake of honesty.

Leave a Reply

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