North Korea is not only a dangerous country because of its nuclear weapons.
The West probably won't develop a good relationship if you don't shake hands with Kim Jong-un.
Has the West focused on North Korea's nuclear weapons for too long?
Howard W. French, columnist at Foreign Policy, says so - and hopes for a change in strategy.
French has long reported on North Korea as a journalist.
He observed many futile attempts to get closer through diplomatic channels.
This article is available in German for the first time – it was first published in
magazine on June 15, 2022 .
Berlin – I have been following events in East Asia for more than a decade, reporting from Japan and China in the late 1990s.
I thought I knew all the diplomatic responses to the challenges North Korea poses to the international system, including the development of weapons of mass destruction and systems.
During my years in Japan, I often spent more time in South Korea than back home in Tokyo.
Much of this work has focused on the back and forth of events in North Korea, ruled by the Kim dynasty.
Times of cautious diplomatic approaches and even moments of charm alternated with outright ice ages marked by hostile language and echoes of war chants.
North Korea: Hope for rapprochement with South Korea
I traveled to North Korea as a reporter on two occasions when it was extremely rare.
The first time, in August 2002, I took part in an overnight trip on a South Korean Coast Guard cutter from South Korea to the North Korean city of Kumho.
Here, an international consortium had laid the foundation stone for the construction of a civilian nuclear reactor not suitable for the development of nuclear weapons.
It was intended to provide electricity to the energy-poor country and, more importantly, to show, through a confidence-building measure, that Pyongyang could improve its position by gradually opening itself up to the outside world and abandoning its then fledgling nuclear weapons program.
Later that same year, I flew on the plane of then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to a summit meeting with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
At that time there was hope for a lasting rapprochement between the two countries.
Washington was very hostile to this diplomacy, and it was soon doomed to failure.
At the end of that momentous year, so many threats were being exchanged between Washington and Pyongyang that my editors asked me to spend a lonely Christmas in Seoul just in case war broke out.
Years of Change in North Korea: From Sunshine Politics to 'Axis of Evil'
This has been a decade of striking abundance of ups and downs.
Earlier this decade, I reported on the so-called Sunshine Policy of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who was a hero of the struggle for democracy in that country in the 1970s and 1980s.
As South Korean leader, Kim also advocated trusting cooperation with the North, allowing tourists from the far more affluent South to visit purpose-built North Korean enclaves near the border between the two countries, thus providing much-needed dollars to the North's ailing economy .
This led to carefully staged yet tearful family reunions between relatives,
separated by the armistice at the end of the war in the 1950s.
The sunshine policy was also doomed to fail and was abandoned.
I watched then-US President George W. Bush describe North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" after the September 11, 2001 attacks, leading to a tough US stance on Pyongyang.
The United States was still spinning dangerously on itself, and the cartoonish members of the Bush administration, many of whom I had met in South Korea or Japan, seemed to believe that posturing and loud words could coerce North Korea into changing its policies of nuclear armament to change.
Trump meets Kim Jong-un: diplomacy in vain
Over all these years, I watched the North launch increasingly powerful missiles, some flying over Japanese territory.
This trend continued years after I left the region when ballistic weapons were tested, which are said to be capable of hitting almost any part of the Americas.
From New York, I watched in amazement as then-US President Donald Trump, seemingly unprepared and instinctively, met North Korea's youngest head of state - Kim Jong-un, the grandson of the country's founder - in the demilitarized zone often visited, only about 30 miles from Seoul.
Trump spoke of exchanging love letters with his much younger Korean interlocutor, but even that diplomacy - like all previous ones - did not result in any major breakthrough.
Some had hoped that the two leaders' second meeting at a summit in Vietnam in 2019 could result in an arms control agreement for the Korean Peninsula.
Trump, however, dismissed Kim's offer to freeze operations at the old Yongbyon graphite reactor as insufficient, and so that diplomacy fizzled out like all others before it.
Another North Korean nuclear weapons test coming soon?
That brings us to the current state of affairs and to the question of whether I have really seen everything, that is, whether everything has really been tried up to this point to contain the threat of nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia.
When I first started covering North Korea, the belief was that the country had two untested nuclear weapons and was only firing short-range missiles based on outdated and easily shot-down designs like the old Soviet Scud missile.
Today, a retired, longtime US intelligence expert on the country says North Korea probably possesses 50 to 60 such weapons.
The country has become increasingly adept at miniaturizing these missiles, and they have been tested.
In recent weeks, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have all warned of the likelihood of another North Korean nuclear weapons test, which North Korea appears to have prepared well, in the face of numerous missile launches.
North Korea's nuclear weapons could in future be controlled by military commanders
Today, North Korea not only has ICBMs.
Rather, explains Robert Carlin, a former CIA and US State Department analyst I've known since the early 2000s, the country's focus is on being able to launch missiles from submarines and - which is arguably even more concerning – acquire tactical nuclear weapons.
This entails extraordinary risks, since responsibility for decision-making then no longer lies in the hands of a central authority, but in those of military commanders.
It is time to recognize that no one, least of all Washington, can persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, however desirable or even urgent it may seem.
That goal cannot be achieved through threats of violence, coalitions with neighbors, the occasional carrot offering, calls for help to the Chinese, or tougher economic sanctions.
And if what I am assuming is true, then it is time to consider something that has never been attempted before: ending the hostility between Washington and Pyongyang that has only fueled North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons.
North Korea and South Korea are formally still at war
Most Americans are unaware that a formal state of war remains in place between the United States and North Korea, which (along with South Korea) never signed a peace accord ending the Korean War.
Yet that is precisely what should be the explicit aim of US diplomacy with a country that has long been recognized as one of the most isolated countries in the world.
The goal of reducing, and perhaps eliminating, nuclear weapons on the peninsula should not be lost sight of, but what is important now is a determined reduction in hostility and tension.
That doesn't mean unilateral disarmament by the United States or the increasingly capable South Koreans.
Rather, what is important is a gradual rapprochement with Pyongyang aimed at ending the country's economic isolation and progressively enabling the creation of a more prosperous North Korean society through trade and increased human contacts with the outside world.
West must accommodate North Korea
Many will not be able to resist the temptation to dismiss the idea outright as appeasement, arguing that doing so would only allow North Korea to further expand its military capabilities.
The problem with this logic, as the world has seen, is that sanctions and isolation have not prevented Pyongyang from developing devastating nuclear capabilities.
The best hope for peace may lie in convincing the North that it has little to fear from the outside world and can therefore afford to progressively relax its own stance and perhaps even normalize its relations with other countries.
For now, Pyongyang appears to be betting that the era of US influence in East Asia is ending and China will continue to gain relative strength, but even that could bode well for a historic shift in Western diplomacy.
The rulers of the Kim dynasty, who have mastered the principles of game theory very well, have always been careful not to become too dependent on their neighbors.
Like in Cuba: justify failures with an embargo
Of course, should Pyongyang take advantage of this relaxation to accelerate its investment in militarization, it would be appropriate to end the experiment.
With the country already possessing a robust nuclear deterrent capability, it is difficult to predict what risk a departure from previous diplomatic approaches might pose, at least in the short to medium term.
As much as this argument is aimed at changing the dynamic between North Korea and the United States and its Asian allies, it is also about North Korea's internal dynamics.
Years before writing about this country, I covered Cuba, an officially Marxist-Leninist state strictly controlled by one family.
There I witnessed first hand how effectively former Cuban President Fidel Castro used the longstanding US embargo on his country to mobilize popular support and legitimacy and to justify his government's economic failures.
As in the case of Cuba, the easing of barriers and economic integration of North Korea would gradually undermine the state's narrative,
having to fight alone against the rest of the world.
And growing prosperity would also boost the country's middle class, so there would be an ever-growing stratum of society that would be more open to new ideas and less susceptible to totalitarian control mechanisms.
Diplomatic relations with North Korea: It can't get any worse anyway
However, this should not lead to the romantic notion that trade could transform North Korea into a democracy anytime soon.
Rather, think of it this way: a reduction in hostility through economic cooperation and a less overt focus on military issues by the United States, South Korea, and Japan can hardly produce worse results than what the world has seen over the past 20 years .
At some point, North Korea will have to be persuaded that the continued investment in nuclear weapons and delivery systems is no longer worthwhile, not because of the threat of countermeasures and retaliation, but because of the devotion of so many resources to high-tech developments that serve civilians in a poor society bringing virtually no benefit, forcing all but a tiny elite into a stunted life.
Opening the door a crack, creating a middle class, could help nurture a desire for something better.
And if this strategy is applied with sincerity and patience, the country has no way of blaming its enemies for its own failure to build a livable society.
By Howard W French
By Howard W French
Howard W. French
Howard W. French
Foreign Policy columnist,
a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent.
His latest book is
Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.
This article was first published in English in the magazine "ForeignPolicy.com" on June 15, 2022 - as part of a cooperation, it is now also available in translation to the readers of the IPPEN.MEDIA portals. *Merkur.de is an offer from IPPEN.MEDIA.
This article was first published in English in the magazine "ForeignPolicy.com" on June 15, 2022 - as part of a cooperation, it is now also available in translation to the readers of the IPPEN.MEDIA portals.
*Merkur.de is an offer from IPPEN.MEDIA.
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