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Broadened Diplomacy in US and North Korea Relations

by Pronoy Chatterji & Naman Gurudatha

Image: North Korean military parade (via Bing)

It is common knowledge that “cool guys” don't look at explosions in American movies. Can you blame them? It makes for great TV and looks amazing. However, as flashy as Hollywood portrayed these shots to be, it is quite different in the real world; there are much graver consequences in how harmful warfare can be in real life, parents could lose their children, children could lose their parents, and families could be left forever broken. Currently, in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, there is a heated situation on the verge of combustion that requires action. In order to stabilize this growing feud, the United States should shift its strategy to create a more balanced mixture of its carrot and stick to mitigate the threat of regional destabilization.

On November 2, 2022, North Korea conducted yet another trial run, this time launching twenty five missiles. However, whether intentionally or not, one of its short-range missiles was shot in the direction of South Korea and landed 16 miles south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), a marine border between the two states which continues along the DMZ. The NLL has been the cause of numerous conflicts since its establishment at the end of the Korean War, and North Korea refuses to recognize it to this day. Amongst crossing the NLL, the missile also landed within the territorial waters of South Korea’s Ulleung Island, which is approximately 75 miles away from the mainland peninsula. This is the first time since the island was split into two in 1945 that North Korean weaponry landed alarmingly close to any South Korean territory, and is also the greatest number of missiles that North Korea has fired at once. The United States, South Korea, and their allies interpreted the military exercise as a sign of clear escalation and aggression, putting almost the entire world on high alert.

Because of North Korea’s aggression and military provocation, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered the military for a “stern response be swiftly taken so that North Korea’s provocation pays a clear price.” These events awoke the nation; taking matters into their own hands, the South Korean Air Force retaliated with their own military action, sending three missiles that landed north of the NLL just hours after their adversary’s initial test. Referring to the region’s multilateral air force exercise Operation Vigilant Storm between the US and South Korea, North Korea stated that its tests were in response to the nations’ attempts to allegedly derail the North Korean government and that continued air force exercises would invite “more powerful follow-up measures.” However, the US denied these accusations and claimed that their exercises were not directed towards Pyongyang, let alone the country as a whole.

All of North Korea’s recent military actions with the US’ nearby presence show the North’s determination to push forward with its plans no matter the international backlash. Granted, if the United States were to become actively involved in the Korean civil conflict, the economic and political stability of East Asia would be put under grave risk. If it comes, however, America will not be the only outside force to join the conflict. In 2010, Chinese authorities strongly opposed when US naval ships entered the sea after a South Korean warship was sunk by North Korean Forces, signifying support for North Korea.

Currently, the US does not have any diplomatic relations with North Korea. Since the start of the Korean War in 1950, the US has imposed a near total economic embargo on North Korea after they invaded the South. But as North Korea still manages to fund long-range missile technology which threatens the US and its allies, this seven-decade old strategy may not be that effective in preventing upheaval in the region. Kim Jung Un’s intentions are clear; he wants North Korea to maintain its nuclear arms – regardless of the economic costs.

Despite a lack of uniformed legislation detailing diplomatic outreach with North Korea, past governments – from the Clinton to the Trump administration – have approached relations similarly to each other. The administrations centered their policies on negotiating North Korean denuclearization by leveraging economic and diplomatic policy to isolate Pyongyang. However, this strategy was based on the false assumption that the US had enough leverage to deter the Kim regime’s nuclear ambitions and failed to consider Beijing’s support for the country. For instance, due to North Korea’s economic instability, China accounts for over 90% of North Korea’s total imports and exports, and the Chinese government believes that denuclearization is not possible in the short-term. For that reason, the Biden Administration needs to design a strategy that considers the potential of an unaccommodating China and a North Korea who is grounded in their nuclear arms.

The first part of the US’ approach should be devoted to increasing attention on military presence throughout the region. The peninsula has the potential to initiate catastrophe, and diplomatic measures alone have shown to not deter the Kim regime from advancing its nuclear outreach. Rather than entering the peninsula guns ablaze, this can be implemented by stationing more personnel in the region and continuing operations such as Operation Vigilant Storm where there is no aggressive provocation towards North Korea. There are currently 370,000 US soldiers, 150,000 Japanese soldiers, and 420,000 South Korean soldiers in the Indo-Pacific that contribute to the stability of the peninsula. If these efforts were increased, it would send an imperative message that would resonate throughout the minds of North Korean officials: we will not be intimidated.

On the other hand, the US can increase its engagement by utilizing diplomatic liaison offices and cultural exchanges with the North Korean government. Such exchanges could foster a relationship with North Korean rulers and may compel them to favor US ideas, values, interests, and possibly even objectives. This diplomatic approach would be consistent with the Trump Administration’s progress with the regime from 2017 to 2019, which culminated in the first in-person meeting between a US President and North Korean leader in history and a series of economic and denuclearization negotiations in Stockholm, Sweden. However, according to North Korean diplomats, the negotiations fell through because of a lack of transparency in terms of intentions from both sides. It is clear that diplomacy on its own will not suffice, and the US must address relations with North Korea in an honest manner. Therefore, in addition to the increase of cultural exchanges, the United States should be clear about their militaristic, diplomatic, and economic intentions in the region, as this could lessen inconsistencies in negotiations seen in previous administrations and promote truly progressive diplomacy.

Restructuring US strategy to focus on lessening the potential consequences of North Korea’s ballistic technology by optimizing military defense capabilities along with more forthright policy considerations is the best course of action for the Biden Administration. History has shown that kindness alone will not discourage any nuclear activity, while aggression alone will surely end in definite world destruction. To ensure our survival as a civilization, we must work to reach a better balance of openness and assertiveness, so that at the end of each day people can be happier, and more importantly, safer.



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