In our graduate school, we emphasize the importance of understanding the history, culture, and political system of an adversary, which often gives you a better appreciation of how they view strategic issues of geopolitical concern. When the students discuss tension with North Korea, we note the 2000 years of recorded history in Korea, with over 900 invasions and foreign occupation by China, Mongolia, and Japan, which continued until 1945, with the end of World War Two. The message is clear: In North Korea’s case, security and sovereignty are important.
Since 2008, when formal negotiations with North Korea ceased, there has been minimal official dialogue with North Korea. We had the 2009 visit to North Korea of former President Bill Clinton who returned with two American journalists detained in North Korea, and the 2015 visit of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper who returned with two Americans who also were detained in North Korea. From all indications, the visits succeeded in gaining the release of those Americans, but apparently there was little if any geopolitical dialogue with North Korea’s leadership during these visits.
The only other noteworthy interaction with North Korea was the failed February 29, 2012 Leap Day Agreement with North Korea, when the new Kim Jong-un government launched a satellite in April 2012, despite an agreement with the U.S. to halt all missile launches and nuclear tests. North Korea maintained that the agreement did not include satellite rocket launches, an issue North Korea has consistently maintained is an inalienable sovereign right of all nations.
In late October 2016, a few colleagues and I participated in an unofficial meeting with North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister and a few of his colleagues. The two days of discussions in Kuala Lumpur were frank and friendly. We told our North Korean interlocutors that it was our view that North Korea would never be accepted as a nuclear weapons state, and that it was in North Korea’s interest to return to the September 2005 Joint Statement that committed North Korea to complete and verifiable denuclearization in return for security assurances, economic development assistance, eventual provision of Light Water Reactors for civilian nuclear power, and a path to a more normal diplomatic relationship with the U.S.
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