Engaging North Korea

Our current approach isn't working.


John Wickham has an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star urging that the “US must engage North Korea in talks with an eye toward a peace treaty.”

Who is this Wickham character and why am I highlighting something written in a Tuscon newspaper? Well, Wickham was chief of staff of the Army from 1983 to 1987. Prior to that, he commanded UN Command and 8th Army, putting him in charge of all forces, American and otherwise, in South Korea. And he helped avert disaster back in 1979 after President Park Chung-hee was assassinated, later writing about it in Korea on the Brink. Which is to say: he’s been paying close attention to the peninsula for more than three decades and isn’t  some hippy peacenik with no clue about the security situation.

So, what’s his argument?

Our policy for decades has been to impose severe sanctions and to isolate the country in hope that suffering will force leaders to abandon hostility and abide fully with the United Nations Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty they signed years ago. We persist with this tough policy and conservative voices argue we must not reward bad behavior by easing sanctions or negotiating bi-laterally.

However, I believe our policy now must be revised.


The country of Myanmar may offer an example of beneficial change from openness. The former harsh military leadership of Myanmar realized that opening up to the outside world would provide economic aid and opportunity for growth and so their tyrannical policies and leadership have changed.

Given the close relationship between North Korea and Myanmar, this profound change and its attendant benefits could be motivational for North Korean leaders.

Accordingly, I believe we should pursue talks with North Korean leaders and include South Koreans. These talks could focus on working out a peace treaty for the Korean War, something the North Koreans seek and would ease their paranoia about security. The talks also could explore options for removing economic sanctions, perhaps in a phased manner, so that trade and development could begin.

The military sanctions should remain for now. The quid pro quo for a peace treaty and opening up economic opportunities could be North Korean agreement to abide by requirements of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to join the Missile Technology Control Regime, which would stop missile proliferation, and to halt further military provocations, including cyberattacks.

Whether such a deal is possible is outside the scope of my expertise. I just don’t have enough of a read of Kim’s motivations or the degree to which he or his military is calling the shots.

But Wickham is surely right that the current, bipartisan, approach isn’t working. Most notably, we weren’t able to prevent the DPRK from obtaining nuclear weapons, dissuade them from testing said weapons, and are not going to keep them from perfecting long range missiles to effectively deploy said weapons. Nor, incidentally, would even an effective peace treaty likely achieve those goals; the regime simply gains too much from being a minor nuclear power.

Given that, the goal should be to lower tensions. Treating  North Korea as a pariah state does the opposite. And the combination of high tensions; an unstable, untested, leader; a population and military that sees the United States and South Korea as mortal enemies; and nuclear missiles is not a good one.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tsar Nicholas says:

    My head exploded when I got to this part:

    The quid pro quo for a peace treaty and opening up economic opportunities could be North Korean agreement to abide by requirements of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to join the Missile Technology Control Regime, which would stop missile proliferation, and to halt further military provocations, including cyberattacks.

    Is there even an analogy for that? The best I could come up with was:

    The quid pro quo for a peace treaty and independent Palestinian state could be the Palestinian Authority’s agreement to disarm Hamas, to eliminate the fomenting of anti-Israeli viewpoints in madrassas, to eliminate internal corruption in their own political structure, and to withdraw permanently any claim either to a ‘right of return’ for refugees displaced in the 1948 war and to any sovereign claim over what Jews refer to as the Temple Mount.

    I’m pretty sure even Albright, Richardson and Christopher could connect the obvious dots. And also not to hold their collective breath waiting for those two sets of prescribed conditions actually to come about.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t know. It seems to me that as long as a) China supports North Korea and b) reunification remains a political priority in South Korea the North will be encouraged to maintain its path.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    I was reading the Shanghai Daily today which is the English Language paper here, and there were two articles about North Korea. The second detailed the American response to North Korea’s recent behavior. It was relayed in a matter of fact style and if anything, seemed to speak approvingly of America’s steady but firm response. The first was a bit more nuanced. It didn’t mention North Korea by name but was directly over the second article, which of course had “North Korea” prominent in its headline. Xi Jin Ping (the new Chinese leader) was waxing forth at an international meeting about how no one should be allowed to sow chaos. And it was clear from the juxtaposition and the context that he was talking about NK, no the USA.

  4. Rob in CT says:

    I figure whatever China is up for is what’s doable. If China is sick & tired of the NKs BS, then maybe something constructive can happen. If not, then I don’t see much point in “engaging” the NK regime.

    This is why things like the signals from the Chinese such as those MarkedMan mentions give me some hope (and perhaps it could explain some extra twitchy behavior from the NKs).

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: My head exploded when I saw you compare Israel/Palestine to N Korea/ S Korea. Not only are the 2 situations not even in the same ball park, they aren’t even on the same continent. Here is a suggestion for the future: If you can’t find a viable comparison, don’t make one. Because when you do it anyway, every one looks at you and says, “What the f are you talking about? Oh, wait a minute, you aren’t talking about anything. You’re just flapping your gums.”

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Given that, the goal should be to lower tensions.

    Has that not been the goal for decades now? Have we ever been able to influence the North for good or ill? I have no great insight or any such, but as a slightly interested observer over the years it has always seemed to me that these things are driven far more by internal pressures than anything else.

    But my name is not John Wickham who “was chief of staff of the Army from 1983 to 1987. Prior to that, he commanded UN Command and 8th Army, putting him in charge of all forces, American and otherwise, in South Korea.” and obviously has more knowledge about the Korean peninsula in his little finger than I can imagine.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    To reinforce what I said above and what Rob in CT said, when you’re bothered by your neighbor’s dog’s barking, you don’t talk to the dog. You talk to the neighbor.

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    @Rob in CT: @Dave Schuler: I agree, this is all up to China. We should be negotiating with China not NK.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Robert Farley weighs in:

    “The appropriate response to concern about catastrophic defeat at the hands of the United States and South Korea would surely be to deescalate the crisis, but DPRK domestic politics may, for the time, preclude that possibility.

    Money quote:

    “Again, few wars happen by accident; most take place because policymakers want them, even if those policymakers operate with poor or incomplete information about the prospects for success. Given the current balance of capabilities on the Korean Peninsula, a full war seems exceedingly unlikely, as none of the combatants stand to benefit.

    Still, even the low probability of an accidental war demands some attention from policymakers. Seoul, Washington, and, perhaps most importantly, Beijing should take every possible step to ensure that some form of communication remains between the potential belligerents. “

  10. Dave says:

    China has been calling for the six party talks to resume for some time now. America would be smart to see how far Xi Jinping is will to go with the new DPRK leadership. I agree Kim is probably shaken by the fact China signed off on new sanctions. As isolated as the UN continues to make NK the thought of losing China as an ally has to be absolutely terrifying, especially to the US. This is one of those situations however where money seems to trump everything. If the US hadn’t wasted so much on unnecessary perhaps we would have some to offer to China instead of owing it to them. This will come down to what is more costly to China, millions of refugees potentially surging across their borders or potential lost trade with America. However, as long as Juche continues to permeate the landscape of NK peace seems impossible.

  11. stonetools says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    To reinforce what I said above and what Rob in CT said, when you’re bothered by your neighbor’s dog’s barking, you don’t talk to the dog. You talk to the neighbor.

    Yeah, but can China curb its dog?

    I’m guessing what North Korea wants is more aid to prop up its economy. The problem here is that the USA and SK are willing to give it more aid in return for curbing its nuclear program, but NK has often broken its promises about curbing its program. How do you negotiate with a liar and a promise breaker? You can’t really. It is a puzzlement!

  12. MarkedMan says:

    I don’t have any particular insight, but it seems to me that thinking of China as being “in control” of NK is a gross oversimplification. China could easily bring down the government, but then would have millions of panic stricken and starving people storming their border. So it is very unclear that the Chinese government can force rational behavior on an irrational regime. And there’s another important factor to consider. As long as there is a North Korea, there is a buffer between a very strong US ally and the PRC. In other words, NK’s existence means the PRC doesn’t have to share a border with us, even by proxy. That may be worth a lot of hassle to them.

  13. john personna says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Maybe you should have gone for Florida/Cuba.

    But really the tiring thing is that you don’t really do learning or analysis. What you do is tie each day’s news to your preexisting biases, and then expand on those biases. Sadly, you are not alone. Quite high up in the media stack you find pundits who do the same thing. Yesterday’s “Jury Duty is like Obama’s America” is a case in point.

  14. Andre Kenji says:

    The obsession of North Korea is not security, it´s about extorting money and resources from the West to keep the luxuries of their ruling class, and to keep their own people under the line. It´s a much more extreme point than Myanmar: there are no dissidents with access to cell phones to film atrocities(One of the things that forced the generals in Myanmar to open the country). They want people in the West and South Korea to fear them, so that them can get “humanitarian help” from the West.

    When the regime falls the images that we are going to see are not going to be much better than what people saw after the fall of concentration camps. And if the West looks like to be afraid of North Korea than it´s much easier for them to make their own people to be afraid from them. Besides that, if you are worried about nuclear proliferation North Korea is a much more worrying problem than Iran. A regime where people eats grass and rats to avoid starvation is more than willing to sell military technology to anyone. Including terrorists.

  15. stonetools says:


    There are a lot of ways this thing could go. One thing that may happen is that China could move to topple the regime, invading so as to “restore order”, then instal a more pliant puppet. We are probably still considerably short of that.
    Reunification under the ROK government would be the optimal solution for the West, but that is maybe the most unlikely possibility. If that became a live option, China would accede only if there was a broad demilitarization zone along the Yalu River and NK’s nukes were destroyed. There would have to be lots of other concessions too (non-aggression pact, international aid for NK refugees in China, etc).

  16. C. Clavin says:

    “…The former harsh military leadership of Myanmar realized that opening up to the outside world would provide economic aid and opportunity for growth and so their tyrannical policies and leadership have changed…”

    Where is even the most miniscule indication this would work?
    Is Arizona where senile old generals and senators end up?

  17. stonetools says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Hey, compared to a slide into live war with North Korea, it’s worth a shot, although I myself am skeptical. Gotta consider the alternatives.

  18. C. Clavin says:

    This is the equivilant of pundits like David Brooks who think if only Obama would negotiate with the House Republicans everything would be fine…but neglects to consider the actual history involved.
    No one is going to war with North Korea or, it’s benefactor, China.
    Although had we elected Romney the Neo-Cons may have pushed that agenda and convinced the spineless goober to go along.

  19. Spartacus says:

    Can someone please describe the goal of sanctions on N. Korea? Then, assuming the goal is something we actually want, please explain whether the sanctions are working or not.

  20. rudderpedals says:

    @Spartacus: IIRC it started out as punishment for proliferating nuclear weapons tech.

  21. rudderpedals says:

    And the not yet met goal is to stop the proliferation and somehow seize the forbidden stuff they’ve made since they were first sanctioned.

  22. Spartacus says:



  23. anjin-san says:

    Wandering off topic for a moment – has there been a peep on OTB about the recovering real estate market?

  24. Dazedandconfused says:


    It’s not just about proliferation, it’s about giving up the ability to become a nuclear “power”. I believe that dream is dead. In their plenary meeting (just last week) they formalized and institutionalized their nuclear weapons as the ‘bedrock’ of their national defense. That’s the bad news. The good is they are telling their people that this will mean this will save them a great deal of money in that area, which can be put to much better use in producing other things.

    This is an indication they will no longer even pretend to negotiate on the nuclear issue. Have to wait and see.

    Why? I be guessing, but I think the leadership knows they can’t control the information their people will have access to for much longer, let alone forever, and know that the peasants had better be in a damn good mood when that happens, or they are likely to string the lot of them up by their nads with piano wire. The lies these regimes have told their people have painted the leadership in quite a corner, and I suspect the new regimes priority list starts with their own (and their families) necks.

    Offers to “open them up” strike me (FWIW-(not much)) as naive. It’s not the sanctions that are keeping them the “hermit kingdom”. The nukes are not a bargaining chip, they are key to their plan to dig themselves out of this mess.

    The plan seems to be to establish Little Kim’s military cred with the people (that is, all this bluster isn’t ‘about us’) and start working at transforming this ruinously expensive yet ultimately useless million-man army into cheap labor, and try to re-enter the world. This is fraught with peril, but it appears to them to be the least-worst of a lot of very bad options.

  25. Mikey says:

    There’s a very interesting Reddit post up on the NK situation here.

    My next-door neighbor is an intel analyst specializing in the Korean peninsula. As of today, he’s still working normal hours. When he starts staying at work until midnight, I’ll know things are getting legitimately tense…

  26. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Mikey: @Mikey:

    That post on Reddit had a line that needs to be considered when evaluating it’s seriousness:

    The greatest irony of this entire tragedy is that of all the countries in the world that I am familiar with… the one that is most similar to the United States… is North Korea.

  27. Mikey says:

    @Dazedandconfused: Do you think he’s right about the timeline and likely motivations of NK, though? I was hoping to get some alternate viewpoints, because the post “rang true” with me and I’m a bit cautious about accepting it just because it “seems” to make sense.

  28. Dazedandconfused says:


    I think he’s right something will happen this week or very soon, but claiming it’s gotta be “big” is where I think he’s wrong. Maybe, maybe not, sez me. Motivations? I thought he was mainly gloating about how screwed they were and didn’t delve into that much.

    The thing would be a task to un-pack for BS. Right off the top he goes completely ape-shit and concludes the Japanese are incapable of determining whether or not they would participate and how much, and attaches to that a foot note that admits he has no idea what he is talking about. Barking mad or troll extraordinaire?

  29. Mikey says:


    Barking mad or troll extraordinaire?

    Well, it’s on Reddit, so that might not be an either-or. I generally stick to non-politically-oriented subreddits, but that post got put in /r/bestof so it showed up on my front page.

    I think I’ll try to get some info out of my neighbor, as much as he’s permitted to divulge, anyway.

  30. Mikey says:

    @Dazedandconfused: Turns out the guy who posted that Reddit comment to which I linked has so worn out his welcome at /r/AskHistorians that they banned him. Whoops. I’m glad I brought it to leveler heads rather than accepting it without question.

    I spoke with my analyst neighbor, who pretty much agrees with what you wrote here. Much of this is for internal NK consumption, consolidation of Kim’s power, etc. He also thinks it’s an effort to extort “tribute,” i. e. food aid.

  31. Dazedandconfused says:

    Thanks. Here’s something I came across today that describes what I suspect is motivating them much better than I did, BTW.


    It’s really hard to imagine a way all this ends well.

  32. Mikey says: