As a young professional, a part of both the nuclear and North Korea policy spheres, I’ve talked myself out of writing countless articles. I always think that my writing isn’t strong enough, my arguments are weak, no one wants to hear what I have to say, other people have advocated for similar strategies, etc. I have a litany of reasons not to write something, anything that may (or may not) contribute to the current conversation about disarmament, North Korea, nuclear diplomacy or any erudite topic. Why start when the end result is guaranteed to misfire? My status quo is good enough.
In this policy space, I also cannot help but feel frustrated by an ensemble of policy experts that insist that North Korea will never denuclearize, that they will cheat anyways, and that maximum pressure will eventually work. While the stakes of publishing an op-ed as a young researcher in Washington, DC may not be anywhere near the gravity of the stakes of working toward North Korean denuclearization, the repeated phrases of failure for North Korea policy feels like my own defeatist attitude. Why stick your neck out if it will just end in failure?
When I moved to Washington, DC a few years ago, fresh-faced and hopeful, I was genuinely surprised by the pervasive cynicism by many North Korea experts on what would or could work to get North Korea to the negotiating table. Albeit this was amid “fire and fury” when most people in America — whether in the nuclear field or not — were waiting with bated breath for President Donald Trump to start a catastrophic war in his first year in office. But then, 2018 brought a wave of diplomatic opportunities. Who would have thought that the man who confused his Diet Coke button with a mechanism for nuclear launch could lead with diplomacy and pull off the Singapore Summit? Regardless of who led the effort, this was a moment that North Korea experts have decried as unnecessary or impossible for years.
THE UNCONVENTIONAL START TO BETTER RELATIONS
The Singapore Summit Joint Statement held the answer to a frequently asked question from US government officials and policy wonks alike: “What does North Korea really want?” For the first time in years, North Korea provided a direct answer, written clearly as the first point of four in the declaration: “The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new US–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”
Former President Trump’s attempt to establish new relations by sending letters was met with derision. Commentary lambasted Kim Jong Un and Trump’s “love letters” as unproductive since North Korea was not committing to significant actions towards denuclearization. An updated set of defeatist statements bubbled up in the policy space, stating that North Korea is taking advantage of President Trump, the president’s diplomacy was a failure because nothing concrete has been accomplished, and this is worse than what we had before. Instead of this mindset, I would counter that this changing relationship between the heads of two states technically at war was progress toward the first point of the Singapore Summit Joint Statement. It was indeed unconventional, but the strategy was a direct result of what North Korea explicitly stated it wanted from the United States.
North Korea has told us what they want: a fundamentally different relationship with the United States. It’s time to listen and be bold in creating an environment where the United States is not afraid of failure and takes actionable steps to build trust in the relationship.
Criticism toward the Trump administration’s follow-up policies and strategies toward North Korea, however, were warranted. For example, then-Secretary of State Pompeo did not bolster Trump’s attempts to further change the relationship, indicating a fracture within the administration on US policy toward North Korea. In fact, the US government continued to put forth messages indicating the need for maximum pressure on North Korea, insisting that North Korea needs to make the first move, and Trump’s letters alone are sufficient diplomatic strategy. Undercutting the President’s diplomatic attempts with counterproductive messaging and strategies was destined for failure. The inconsistency from the Trump administration created an untenable gap of intention between the Trump–Kim relationship and US–DPRK attempts to discuss denuclearization at the working level.
LISTEN TO NORTH KOREA
With the Biden administration conducting a full review of North Korea policy and future strategies, my fresh-faced and hopeful self is reappearing in an attempt to encourage policymaking from quitting before making an effort. Some strategies are not effective but are well-worn in policy circles. For instance, the time for maximum pressure has expired and attempts to convince China to implement UN sanctions more forcefully are unlikely to happen amidst a global pandemic. Waiting for North Korea to make the first move will not result in anything but a recurrence of the Obama administration’s ill-fated strategic patience policy. North Korea has told us what they want: a fundamentally different relationship with the United States. It’s time to listen and be bold in creating an environment where the United States is not afraid of failure and takes actionable steps to build trust in the relationship.
Here I am writing an op-ed, squashing my litany of negative comments trying to live just a little more boldly than I have been, accepting that some — or most — may not agree with me, and that is alright. The fear of failure, lack of consensus and/or effectiveness need not paralyze new and unconventional ideas. Self-defeatist policy goals for North Korea will not only harm US national security interests, but also work against the ultimate goal of a safer and nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Maybe this time the policy outcomes of the Biden administration will sound more like: doing something different is scary but impactful, understanding our adversaries is essential, and realizing there are steps towards denuclearization is fundamental.