All of the signs seem clear: North Korea is done being the hermit kingdom, at least for now, but for a price.
After a long diplomatic slumber, Pyongyang seems ready to engage, albeit on its own terms. North Korea has not sat down with U.S. negotiators in working-level talks — or any talks, with anyone — since October 2019, a meeting it seemed to want to sabotage as a sort of revenge for President Donald Trump’s refusal to agree to its terms for a nuclear deal in Hanoi back in February 2018.
Since the end of 2019 until the present day, Pyongyang has used an odd and disorganized mix of threats, missile tests, fiery op-eds, and explosive shows of force to signal that not only was it ready for an new round of tensions, but that it was prepared to demonstrate even larger missile platforms, such as a massive new ICBM, if pushed into a corner.
That should all have been expected, as Pyongyang loves to show strength in moments of weakness, page one in its diplomatic playbook. North Korea was one of the first nations to recognize the threat coming from the COVID-19 pandemic, locking down its land borders with China and Russia and halting nearly all trade with anyone. The economic impact, as one would imagine, has been devastating. While experts debate the exact numerical cost of the lockdowns, North Korea clearly went into an economic depression from which it will surely take years to recover.
And if dealing with the ramifications of a nationwide COVID shutdown were not enough, North Korea’s economy had already been devastated by so-called “maximum pressure” sanctions, heat waves, multiple typhoons, flood after flood mixed with droughts, that have contributed to years of sub-par harvests in a country that has suffered decades of food insecurity.. Adding the COVID lockdowns can only create a national environment of perpetual crisis. The situation has become so bad that North Korea leader Kim Jong-un himself has declared that the nation faces yet another “arduous march” a reference to the mass starvation of the 1990s when as many as three and half million North Koreans died.
Whether this dire state of affairs has forced Kim to reassess his diplomatic strategy remains unclear, but in what looked like a thaw in inter-Korean relations, communication lines between Pyongyang and Seoul reopened late last month, reportedly at the request of Kim himself. We have even learned that letters have been exchanged between the leaders of the two Koreas, another sign that recent tensions were easing. There was even talk of a possible summit in the air.
But the plot thickened just a few days later when Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jung, sometimes referred to as Kim's second-in-command, demanded that a scheduled U.S.-ROK command post exercise — that is, not a military drill out in the field with live ammunition, but rather a glorified simulation and a threat to no one — be cancelled. If not, she warned, it will undermine any thawing relations between North and South.
Moreover, as a precondition to reopen talks with the U.S., according to Ha Tae-keung, a member of South Korea's parliamentary intelligence committee, “North Korea argues that the United States should allow mineral exports and imports of refined oil and necessities.” And the kicker: those “necessities” North Korea was reportedly referring to were not tons of food aid, precious medicine, vaccines, or other humanitarian aid, but rather “high-class liquors and suits” for the regime's elite.
So, in what could be its most dire hour of need, Pyongyang now apparently wants a reward for coming to the table for talks with the United States or South Korea?
There was no confirmation or mention of any new sanction relief requests by state media in Pyongyang. But if true, North Korea’s latest outreach is not a cry for help from a country whose stability is in question or a genuine attempt to reboot relations with Washington or Seoul. It would be an attempt to get the U.S.-ROK military simulations suspended or cancelled, and the sanctions regime gutted. And what would the alliance get in return? The right to sit in a room with North Korea negotiators that history shows have almost no power to do anything except read pre-approved statements that are meaningless wastes of time.
Let me be clear, I am for engagement with North Korea, constructive dialogue as well as the creation of a new relationship where both sides can agree on a step-by-step approach to ease tensions over time. I am for the creation of liaison offices, the removal of sanctions on the DPRK in exchange for certain verifiable limits and caps on its nuclear and missile programs, as well as a peace treaty that formally ends the Korean War. I also accept the fact that Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. But those of us who support engagement with North Korea must know when to draw the line, to not be so desperate to engage that we are willing to give up any leverage we have to transform a dangerous situation.
What Washington and Seoul should do is make a counter-proposal to the North. They should repeat their offer to meet any place any time, with no preconditions. And, as a token of their good will and in recognition of the enormous difficulties the North Korean people now face, they should offer unprecedented levels of food aid as well as COVID-19 vaccines as much as can be reasonably given subject to international monitoring — the terms of which would have to be approved by Pyongyang — to ensure aid is provided to the most needy. Washington and Seoul could offer a small increase in the amount of oil and fuel imports that are currently limited by international sanctions.
Nonetheless, this is as far as Washington and Seoul should be willing to go. It would be a mistake to gut the sanctions regime and weaken the U.S.-ROK alliance's capacity to deter North Korea in exchange for a one-hour meeting that achieves nothing.
Engagement is the right approach when it comes to North Korea, but not at any price.