North Korea’s missile launches are in the headlines again, and a seventh nuclear test might be on the horizon. For most experts and pundits, Pyongyang, its nukes, and its million-strong military are but a threat to address. This threat justifies confronting North Korea at every corner and imposing harsh sanctions on it. Yet a policy of diplomatic engagement could convert the DPRK from a threat into an asset in the competition with America’s primary rival, China.
Turning China’s Head to the North
Washington should stop its containment of North Korea as soon as possible. The more the North Koreans remain isolated, the more they will depend on China. If the DPRK turns into a Chinese satellite, America faces the risk of combined Sino-North Korean activities that harm its interests, both in peacetime and wartime. Beijing would also grow more capable of using North Korea as a pawn to distract the United States during a crisis in Taiwan or elsewhere.
Beijing can threaten U.S. allies and partners like Taiwan, India, Japan, and Vietnam in part thanks to stable relations with Russia and North Korea. These relationships secure its northern borders, and with no land threat in the north, the Chinese are free to invest heavily in their navy at the expense of their army. That gives them the assets they need to bully their southern and eastern neighbors. Were Washington to mend fences with North Korea and build amicable relations with Pyongyang, China would be forced to review its entire regional strategy.
A U.S.-aligned North Korea would force China to devote more resources to defending Manchuria. Due to the sheer size of the North Korean military, this could draw significant resources from other theaters. Such a reappraisal would reduce the Chinese threat to its neighbors. Beijing would be forced to reinvest in its ground forces, and this shift would notably complicate any Chinese plans to attack Taiwan. It would also lessen the U.S. defense burden.
Further, normalizing U.S.-DPRK relations would allow Pyongyang to refocus some of its military away from the 38th parallel and toward its border with China. This would decrease South Korea’s focus on the North Korean threat. It would leave Seoul better able to participate in American initiatives to contain China and provide for the region’s common defense.
Make Russia Look to Asia Again with North Korea
The same reasoning would apply to Russia. Moscow can focus its firepower against Ukraine and threaten NATO because its Asian borders are safe. In the 1960s, the Sino-Soviet split forced the Kremlin to increase its troop numbers along the Chinese border significantly. This limited Soviet options to expand elsewhere and added to their heavy defense burden. Thanks to the post-Cold War Sino-Russian partnership, Russia has demilitarized its border with China, leaving only a skeletal force posture.
A repeat of the Sino-Soviet rupture is unlikely, because China and Russia’s interests are far more congruent than during the Cold War. China is embroiled in conflicts with many of its neighbors and with the United States. It has no interest in adding Russia, its only major partner, to its long list of adversaries. Conversely, Russia harbors few ambitions in East Asia and is laser-focused on European affairs, where its core security interests lie.
A U.S.-friendly North Korea would force the Kremlin to pay attention to its southeastern approaches again. Vladivostok, the heart of the Russian Far East, sits a few dozen miles away from the North Korean border. By increasing pressure on Russia’s east, a U.S.-North Korean entente would lock some Russian forces there, complicating the Kremlin’s aggressive calculus in Eastern Europe or elsewhere.
Such a rapprochement will reduce the risk of inadvertent conflict. The current climate of enmity encourages regional actors in Northeast Asia to perceive each other’s activities and exercises as potential threats. The lack of regular communication between their political leaderships and their armed forces only worsens this feeling of menace. Engaging with North Korea is the best path to reducing regional mistrust and allowing all Northeast Asian nations to focus on the Chinese challenge.
Building Trust Is a Healthy Global Task
First of all, the United States should soften sanctions on North Korea to give Pyongyang breathing space. The harsh sanctions regime imposed on the DPRK since the 2000s has accomplished little except throwing North Korea into China’s arms. After that, America should work to build amicable political and economic relations with Pyongyang. Exchanging embassies and signing a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War would be helpful first steps.
American diplomacy should then encourage allies and partners to build amicable relations with North Korea. Washington has often shown less eagerness than Seoul to engage Pyongyang, sometimes discouraging South Korean initiatives. On the contrary, it should let the South Koreans lead a rapprochement with the North to entice the North Koreans away from China. India and Vietnam enjoy good relations with both the United States and North Korea, and these countries could serve as valuable facilitators. In addition, Japan, Taiwan, and Europe would have a role to play in modernizing North Korea and diminishing China’s grip on its economy.
Proponents of the traditional approach may postulate that North Korea cannot be trusted. Indeed, the North Korean regime could try to foul Washington or betray it later. If leader Kim Jong Un could easily unify the Peninsula, he would. But he cannot, and as long as South Korea maintains a strong military and its alliance with the United States, Pyongyang will have no easy path to reunifying Korea. Even if North Korea were to betray the United States later, it would only mean a return to the present status quo; nothing would be lost.
Others will object that the regime is so foreign to liberal democracy that any cooperation is immoral and unacceptable. However, the current policy of confrontation has had few positive results. First, decades of sanctions and shaming have failed to push North Korea toward democracy. Sanctions worsened the country’s economic situation and amplified the people’s suffering without harming elites. Second, engaging with Pyongyang would offer financial and diplomatic leverage on the regime to promote liberalization, while the stick-based approach only feeds the hardliners’ narrative of American malevolence.
Now that great power competition is again the bread-and-butter of U.S. foreign policy, rethinking America’s approach to North Korea is more urgent than ever. The North Koreans have expressed on several occasions their willingness to work with Washington to contain China. Will American policymakers seize this opportunity?
Dylan Motin is a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society and a former visiting research fellow at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies. Dylan was named one of the Next Generation Korea Peninsula Specialists at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and a Young Leader of the Pacific Forum. His research expertise revolves around international relations theory, and his main interests are balance-of-power theory, great power competition, and Korean affairs.