A Change in North Korea’s U.S. Policy?

Recent Features


A Change in North Korea’s U.S. Policy?

“…to open up a new chapter for the development of relations…unbound to the past.”

The DPRK has signaled several times over the course of the summer that it is reviewing its nuclear policy and that a central feature of the review is connected with the “hostile policy” of the United States. Against this backdrop, North Korea’s foreign ministry released a lengthy statement last Friday. The statement did not contain any surprises.

Instead, it provided a straightforward explanation of how North Korea sees the world, arguing that despite a stream of U.S. assurances over the course of the past two decades, a U.S. attitude of hostility toward the DPRK has prevented confrontation from being resolved. (Of course, what stands behind the argument is the unwavering decades long opposition that U.S. policymakers have held toward North Korea’s nuclear development.)

One point the memorandum makes well is that the nuclear issue was not the origin of U.S.-DPRK confrontation and that “from the very beginning, the U.S. defined the DPRK as an enemy and refused to recognize its sovereignty.” The North Korean foreign ministry argues that the United States opposed the DPRK from the very beginning and refused to establish diplomatic relations with Pyongyang while establishing relations with the Soviet Union and other Communist countries in Eastern Europe. The United States and the DPRK are still technically at war. In other words, the North Korean nuclear problem is really just one symptom of a deeper predicament that characterizes U.S.-DPRK relations. This characterization signals the possibility of yet another North Korean effort to engage with the United States on peace talks rather than on nuclear talks.

The Foreign Ministry Memorandum paints North Korea as the object of enduring U.S. military aggression and economic sanctions despite its periodic floating of peace proposals that have continuously been rejected by the United States. Even the repeal of the Trading With the Enemy Act (TWEA) and removal of the DPRK from the list of state sponsors of terrorism under the Bush administration as a carrot to nudge North Korea toward denuclearization was thwarted, in the North Korean view, by new U.S. sanctions, to which the Obama administration has continued to add more sanctions.

The North’s preferred solution, given America’s implacable policies of hostility toward North Korea, is for the United States to make a “bold and fundamental change” in policy toward North Korea: “The respected Marshal Kim Jong-un wants to open up a new chapter for the development of relations with the countries friendly toward us, unbound to the past.” Or, we can “continue down the U.S. hostile policy as of today, resulting in further expanding and building up of the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal.”

North Korea’s framing suggests that the Kim Jong-un regime still wants a relationship with the United States, but on its own terms. It rejects the idea that North Korea faces a strategic choice over whether or not to give up its nuclear program, instead arguing that the United States faces a strategic choice over whether or not to pursue peace with North Korea.  North Korea continues to take actions designed to put the question of denuclearization out of reach, both by continuing its uranium enrichment program on the ground and by pursuing more active economic ties with China, and, most probably with South Korea following the presidential election that will be held in that country in December.

North Korean moves toward limited economic reform without denuclearization, in combination with a peace offensive toward the United States, pose a serious challenge for U.S. policy coordination with both South Korea and China. A U.S. failure to persuade China and South Korea to insist on denuclearization as a prerequisite for economic engagement may lead to de facto acquiescence to a nuclear North Korea, while U.S. insistence on a denuclearization only approach could fail to win sufficient cooperation from new leaderships in China or South Korea early next year.

Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was previously a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.