Reports that North Korea has ruled out denuclearization talks following the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement should come as no surprise. Nor should these reports discourage the U.S. and other world powers from engaging Pyongyang. The initial objective of this engagement should be to halt testing of nuclear devices, stop the launching of ballistic missiles, and prevent proliferation.
In order to successfully engage with North Korea, one has to keep in mind several perspectives. First, saying they are not interested in talks does not necessarily mean the North Koreans are not interested in engaging. In fact, I believe North Korea is interested, but wants the engagement to be on its terms and acknowledging its status.
The North Koreans are following recent U.S. engagement strategy very closely: in Myanmar, Cuba and now Iran. The engagement momentum itself should be used to spark conversations.
Second, no individual wants to hear he is just like another—neither do countries nor their leaders. A sure way to fail engagement with the North Koreans is to tell them they are just like Iranians. They are not: different countries, different cultures, different history, different status, and different neighborhoods.
Third, while we do not have to accept it, we do have to understand the North Korean narrative. North Korean leadership believes the world looks to harm them, and they have some historic evidence to demonstrate that. They are not bluffing. This sentiment is real. There is not much anyone can say or do to convince them otherwise. As a result, they believe that their nuclear deterrence is essential for their survival and protection.
Understanding this narrative can help us better assess what is possible and what is not in the near term with North Korea. As much as the U.S. and world powers would like to negotiate denuclearization with North Korea today, a more realistic initial objective is to halt testing of nuclear devices, stop the launching of ballistic missiles, and prevent proliferation. This would allow the North Koreans to keep their sense of security and deterrence, increasing chances of an agreement that will be kept.
Fourth, on their part, the North Koreans must acknowledge that the mistrust is mutual. Previous agreements have failed. Thus, any negotiated agreement will have to include significant inspection and enforcement mechanisms. While this is a hard pill to swallow for a proud leadership, it is the only way to have a sustainable agreement.
Fifth, building trust is very difficult and takes a lot of time, let alone doing so under an environment of crisis. To that end, my center, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, has been engaging with Pyongyang on humanitarian assistance projects. I have visited North Korea nine times throughout my career. I negotiated the release of prisoners, helped reduce tensions with the South at pivotal times, and my center assisted with food supply to orphanages and children with disabilities. One of the most meaningful projects I have led was the recovery of remains of American servicemen missing in action. Recovering and returning these remains had both an emotional and symbolic meaning to all parties involved. Renewing this program can be a great way to reignite engagement with Pyongyang.
The momentum created by the renewed U.S. strategy of engagement with countries it previously isolated is important. The U.S. and the world powers should use this momentum to engage with Pyongyang, and do so smartly and pragmatically. The longer we wait, the more isolated the North Koreans might feel, and their reaction might be counter-productive to such dialogue.