A new relationship with North Korea is imperative, and the United States must take the first step. In the 1980s, some in the State Department proposed that Beijing and Moscow recognize South Korea while Washington recognize North Korea. With the end of the Cold War, China and Russia did establish robust diplomatic and economic ties with Seoul. Still, we refused to normalize relations with Pyongyang.
Washington should belatedly take that step. In addition, we should enter into serious negotiations with North Korea, China and South Korea to sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Such a treaty, a long-standing North Korean demand, would pave the way for reduced military deployments on both sides of the ironically named Demiltarized Zone between the North and the South. Finally, U.S. leaders should reverse course on economic sanctions, ending most unilateral measures — which bar virtually all economic contact except for U.S. humanitarian aid — and leading, together with Beijing, an effort to roll back multilateral sanctions. The ultimate goal should be to give North Korea a stake in behaving responsibly as a nuclear power.
No doubt, this will be difficult. The oppressive regime may be the most odious government on the planet, with a horrific human rights record. But isolating the country clearly has not worked. North Korea is not about to return voluntarily to nuclear zero. Short of launching airstrikes against all known and suspected nuclear sites — a move almost no serious analyst recommends, since it would risk triggering a full-scale war in East Asia — there is no effective way to compel Pyongyang to abandon its weapons program.
Washington has forged productive ties over the years with other implacable foes. The Nixon administration’s gestures to China, for example, were bold and controversial. For more than two decades, that country had vilified the United States and made shrill threats. A decent relationship with Chairman Mao Zedong seemed no more likely in the early 1970s than one with Kim seems now. But U.S. leaders took a chance, and it paid off. Likewise, in the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration ended decades of unrelenting hostility toward Vietnam. Today, the United States has productive relations with both former enemies.
Our current strategy risks a nightmarish outcome: a nuclear-armed North Korea convinced that its adversaries are determined to destroy it. Just as it is unwise to corner a dangerous animal, it is unwise to alienate a burgeoning nuclear power. We need to try a different approach — one that recognizes reality, however unpleasant that reality might be.
Read more from Outlook:
Five myths about North Korea
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