A Bold Peace Offensive to Engage North Korea
Early next year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is expected to present the new Joe Biden administration with a provocative housewarming gift, most likely a missile test. This aggressive conversation piece would seek to shift attention back to the Korean Peninsula and kickstart diplomacy on Pyongyang’s preferred terms. But experts fear this move would not only advance North Korea’s capabilities and threaten the United States and its allies, but also produce the opposite of Pyongyang’s intended effect. North Korea’s belligerence would elicit international condemnation, necessitate economic and military countermeasures, undermine the peace-building constituency, and precipitate a downward spiral that could take years to reverse.
Rather than passively awaiting a provocation as a fait accompli, U.S. and South Korean policymakers should work together proactively to preempt this scenario. The Biden administration, in coordination with Seoul, should mount a peace offensive of conciliatory initiatives undergirded by strong deterrence to promote de-escalation and achieve a new dialogue with Pyongyang. This strategy, introduced by social psychologist Charles Osgood in the 1960s as graduated reciprocation in tension reduction (GRIT), would maintain denuclearization as a long-term U.S. goal, but does not require it as an immediate concession for U.S. accommodation. Rather, the strategy moves U.S. conciliatory actions up front to facilitate the reciprocal confidence-building measures necessary for building a new security relationship with North Korea, which is a prerequisite for attaining the denuclearization goal. However, the Biden team needs to move quickly, since Pyongyang will likely be hardening its own hawkish policy direction at the upcoming Korean Workers’ Party Congress in January 2021.
This article describes the GRIT framework, provides past examples of its use, including by the two Koreas, and then proposes a potential U.S. GRIT approach to North Korea.
GRIT in Brief
Osgood developed GRIT as a process in which the United States and the Soviet Union exchanged conciliatory actions to reduce tensions and the prospects of nuclear war. He believed that mutual hostility was based on each side’s incorrect perception that the other had harmful intent and that unilateral conciliatory policies could help dissolve the mistrust. By reducing this element of enmity, a tension-increasing arms race could be transformed into a tension-decreasing spiral of trust. Other subsequent studies have also supported the effectiveness of unilateral concessions in facilitating reconciliation.
GRIT has two key pillars. First, the initiating country should maintain sufficient national security as a foundation to begin taking incremental risks toward reducing tensions. Accordingly, the conciliatory initiatives should not significantly undermine the country’s ability to defend itself, deter adversaries, and retaliate if necessary. The initiatives should also be gradual and diversified in scope to help minimize risk. This pillar grounds the idealistic aims of peace-building within the reality of the existing political, military, and psychological environment.
Second, the initiatives should be designed and communicated to induce reciprocation as part of a broader diplomatic strategy. The initiating party should clearly announce its sincere commitment to end hostility and seek a new era of dialogue to resolve differences. The announcement should also be paired with specific unilateral initiatives that demonstrate its credibility and will be understood by the foe as meaningful concessions. In addition, these initiatives should be unambiguous and easily verified to reinforce credibility. Because the process relies on reciprocation for success, the announcement should include an invitation to respond in kind. Moreover, given the stubbornness of mistrust, the initiating party should be persistent through many setbacks for GRIT to succeed.
There are many examples of useful applications of GRIT. In his 1963 speech at American University, President John F. Kennedy proposed ending U.S. atmospheric testing as a first step in a full reset of the nuclear rivalry with the Soviets. Critics at the time called it an unwarranted slowing of the U.S. edge in the arms race. In reality, this initiative became the foundation of more stable relations between the superpowers thereafter. Another example of using courageous and unanticipated unilateral concessions to reverse a hostile relationship was Anwar Sadat’s unprecedented trip to Jerusalem in 1977. This overture began a cautious, step-by-step process of dialogue and cooperation between Egypt and Israel that culminated in the Camp David Accords. Similarly, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched a dramatic range of initiatives in the 1980s that included a halt to the deployment of missiles in Europe, a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, and a sweeping proposal to rid the world of nuclear weapons within 15 years. Although the West balked at many of these ideas, there was sufficient reciprocation, particularly from West Germany, that led to significant tension reduction measures, including the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. President George H. W. Bush’s own unilateral efforts to accelerate global nuclear disarmament, known as the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, included the removal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula. This move, in conjunction with the suspension of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises in early 1992 and the highest-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang since the Korean War, led North Korea to sign a safeguards agreement that would help verify its Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments.
Korean GRIT From 2017 to 2018
South Korea, knowingly or not, used a GRIT policy to engage with North Korea at the height of tensions in 2017. In July, three days after North Korea conducted its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in outlined his approach to North Korea in a speech at Berlin’s Old City Hall. Drawing parallels with German reconciliation, Moon announced a comprehensive peace plan that proposed specific initiatives and invited North Korean reciprocation. His initiatives included being willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at any time and at any place, establishing a military management system to prevent accidental clashes, mutually halting acts of hostility around the Military Demarcation Line, working toward the conclusion of a peace treaty along with complete denuclearization, connecting inter-Korean railways and gas pipelines, promoting nonpolitical exchanges and cooperation, and inviting North Korean participation at the February 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. In line with the GRIT framework, Moon also maintained retaliatory capability, warning that if North Korea continued with its nuclear provocations, more sanctions and pressure would ensue. Pyongyang ignored Moon’s offer initially, proceeding with a nuclear test and two additional intercontinental ballistic missile tests. However, Seoul continued its diplomatic push while supporting punitive U.N. sanctions measures, conducting joint missile tests and military exercises, and approving the deployment of a U.S. missile defense platform.
Moon’s persistence in tension reduction paid off in early 2018 when Kim Jong Un began to reciprocate. In his New Year’s address, Kim laid out a broad statement of détente, calling on the two Koreas to work together to ease the acute military tension and create a peaceful environment on the Peninsula. He also invited South Korean delegations to the North for dialogue and promised to send his own to the Winter Olympics. This response sparked additional tension reduction measures: South Korea and the United States agreed to postpone joint military exercises until after the Olympics; Kim’s sister Yo Jong led the North’s delegation to Pyeongchang in February and delivered an invitation for Moon to visit Pyongyang; and a South Korean team led by national security adviser Chung Eui-yong paid a return visit to Pyongyang in March to prepare for inter-Korean talks and a Moon visit.
South Korea’s approach also seemed to trigger the North’s own GRIT policy toward Washington. In his March meeting with Chung, Kim expressed interest in meeting with his U.S. counterpart as soon as possible. President Donald Trump, in what was considered a major concession, agreed a few days later, marking the first time a sitting U.S. president would meet with the North Korean leader. Seizing on Trump’s gesture, Kim announced at the April plenary meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party a desire for peace and stability on the Peninsula and worldwide disarmament and a shift away from nuclear weapons toward economic development, highlighted by a unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests and intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missile launches, and the dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. These moves exemplified many aspects of the GRIT approach. Kim unequivocally and publicly announced an intent to reduce tensions, and did so several weeks before the potential U.S.-North Korean summit, which provided Washington time to assess the initiative. The announcement also reinforced Kim’s New Year’s invitation to engage in dialogue and included specific unilateral concessions that did not materially compromise Pyongyang’s capacity to defend itself or retaliate.
The three countries continued down the conciliatory path over the next several months. Kim and Moon met twice at Panmunjom in late spring, with the first meeting producing a joint declaration on high-level diplomatic and military talks, establishment of a joint liaison office, reunion of separated families, reduction in military tension, and steps toward a Korean peace regime. Then, at the historic U.S.-North Korean summit in Singapore in June, Trump and Kim agreed to four principles that, while criticized by many as aspirational, fuzzy, and rehashed from previous agreements, demonstrated conciliatory and reciprocal spirit on both sides and, importantly, at the leader level. Pyongyang committed to work toward denuclearization and cooperate on the recovery of U.S. servicemember remains from the Korean War, and Washington promised to establish new U.S.-North Korean relations and help build a peace regime. Separately, Kim promised to dismantle the missile engine site at Tongchang-ri and Trump pledged to halt U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Trump also reportedly told Kim he would sign a declaration to end the Korean War. By September, Moon and Kim met in Pyongyang for their third summit and agreed to a range of diplomatic, economic, and security initiatives, punctuated by a comprehensive military agreement that removed landmines, weapons, and guard posts from the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone and banned hostile activities in land, sea, and air buffer zones.
However, a lack of reciprocal U.S. concessions, at least from Pyongyang’s perspective, stalled diplomatic progress. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang one month after Singapore, North Korea accused him of making “gangster-like” demands and not offering any concessions like an end-of-war declaration or sanctions relief. Washington did fulfill its pledge to cancel the August military exercises — just as Pyongyang followed through on dismantling its nuclear test site and returning some U.S. remains — but North Korea likely viewed this move as part of a dual freeze that corresponded to its nuclear and missile testing moratorium. Pompeo’s new demands required more U.S. concessions. Moon’s shuttle diplomacy at the September inter-Korean summit kept U.S.-North Korean negotiations on track, but North Korea continued to emphasize that further denuclearization steps, like dismantling its Yongbyon facility, would require “corresponding measures” from the United States. Washington’s hard-line approach and Kim’s inability to demonstrate flexibility ultimately scuttled negotiations at the second summit in Hanoi. Kim abandoned the GRIT approach at the end of 2019 when he declared an end to his self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and missile testing and the intent to reveal a new strategic weapon.
U.S. GRIT with North Korea
Many North Korea analysts are concerned that the Biden administration will revert to the cautious, pressure-focused approach used by Barack Obama’s administration. They, including the authors, believe this strategy proved ineffective and only stiffened North Korea’s resolve. Instead, to induce North Korean willingness to de-escalate and re-engage in serious negotiations, the United States should consider the following measures as part of its own GRIT policy.
Announce a policy of rapprochement. Biden promised to engage in “principled diplomacy” with North Korea, but his pitch will need to be more specific, enticing, and proactive to affect Pyongyang’s calculus. The administration should publicly announce that it intends to pursue peace and denuclearization in parallel and in a proportional and reciprocal manner. This approach would underscore U.S. commitment to seeking mutual benefit rather than North Korea’s unilateral denuclearization. If the administration can stomach remnant policies of the Trump era, it could reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the Singapore statement’s four principles. This approach would anchor diplomacy in an agreement Pyongyang still supports and give credit to a Republican achievement, while not deviating from Democratic aims. The announcement should also reiterate Biden’s intent to “set the right formula of sanctions enforcement and sanctions relief” and “offer an alternative vision for a nonnuclear future to Kim” and his willingness to meet with Kim “on the condition that he would agree that he would be drawing down his nuclear capability.” Ideally, this announcement should happen early enough to influence North Korean deliberations before its Party Congress. But since Biden does not take office until January 20, his team will need to announce the strategy soon thereafter or even signal during the transition period that a new approach is coming.
Include specific and diverse initiatives. As part of the announcement and in coordination with Seoul, the administration should identify specific unilateral initiatives to signal its good faith and build North Korean confidence. The type and scope of initiatives should be diversified so that the United States does not weaken itself in any one particular area, but also so that North Korea recognizes the comprehensive nature of the new approach and the many areas in which it can reciprocate. These measures could include a readiness to resume working-level negotiations at any time; a moratorium on U.S. strategic and nuclear asset deployments to the Korean Peninsula; a temporary halt or reduction in the spring military exercises; time-limited, partial sanctions relief; an end to the U.S. travel ban to North Korea; renewed parliamentary, humanitarian, and people-to-people exchanges once COVID-19 conditions improve; and humanitarian and nutritional assistance. These initiatives would also align well with the Moon government’s preference to forgo traditional demonstrations of U.S. military reassurance, like exercises and asset deployments, in favor of more conciliatory gestures. These initiatives would need to be implemented quickly to demonstrate objective credibility.
Invite North Korea to reciprocate. The announcement should also explicitly invite Pyongyang to follow suit with its own confidence-building measures. A positive North Korean response could include returning to working-level negotiations immediately; resuming its moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests; reaffirming its willingness to dismantle the Yongbyon and Tongchang-ri facilities; scaling down its own military exercises; re-engaging with the South on peace-building activities; and meeting with U.N. and U.S. human rights officials. To demonstrate consistency, Washington should be willing to continue its initiatives despite a lack of early reciprocation or even through nasty rhetoric and low-level acts of aggression.
Maintain defensive and deterrence capabilities. The strength of the U.S. military and the combined defense posture of the U.S.-South Korean alliance provide the foundation from which Washington and Seoul can take greater risks for peace. So while military exercises should be conducted to maintain sufficient combined readiness, they should also be modified to minimize the perception of hostile intent. If Pyongyang reciprocates by reducing its own exercises, the alliance should consider further modifications or even suspensions. The United States should also reaffirm its commitment to providing extended deterrence to South Korea using the full range of military capabilities, including U.S. nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities. Furthermore, the two allies should warn that continued violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions will warrant diplomatic, economic, and military responses — though they should be calibrated to avoid escalatory spirals.
Match any reciprocation in future initiatives. If Pyongyang responds in kind, Washington should continue the virtuous cycle. Additional U.S. confidence-building measures could include greater sanctions relief; an end-of-war declaration; opening liaison offices in respective capitals; inviting Beijing and Seoul to join a four-party working group on a peace regime; further reductions in military exercises; senior-level military-to-military discussions; conventional arms reduction measures; loosened restrictions on North Korean travel to the United States; greater humanitarian and economic assistance; and renewed joint prisoners-of-war/missing-in-action remains recovery operations.
The Bottom Line: Go Big, Bold, and Conciliatory
Critics argue that a conciliatory approach to North Korea reflects weakness, naïveté, and a premature compromise in U.S. defense posture. We argue, however, that the GRIT approach allows Washington and Seoul to maintain security and deterrence while taking gradual risks for tension reduction. Moreover, using dramatic, conciliatory initiatives under GRIT can help overcome the current stalemate and return the Korean Peninsula to a trajectory of de-escalation. New, robust, and proactive engagement, rather than tepid trial balloons or exploratory dialogues, is necessary to persuade Pyongyang to pursue de-escalation. Once bilateral negotiations resume, unilateral concessions would give way to the formal bargaining process, but the principle of reciprocity would still hold. GRIT may not pay immediate dividends, but it will create a coherent framework for engaging with North Korea, presenting it with new diplomatic choices, and arresting and reversing its nuclear aims.
Frank Aum is the senior expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the lead author of its 2020 report, A Peace Regime for the Korean Peninsula. From 2010 to 2017, Aum served in the Obama administration at the U.S. Department of Defense, primarily as the senior advisor on North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. During this time, he advised four secretaries of defense on issues related to Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula and received the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service. Aum recently co-authored an article with Amb. Joseph Yun that offered a more realistic approach to dealing with North Korea.
George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Professor of Peace Studies Emeritus at the Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame. For the past 30 years, he has researched and advised on economic sanctions, peace-building, and various peace-related issues. Lopez previously served as the vice president of the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace and on the United Nations Panel of Experts for monitoring and implementing U.N. Sanctions on North Korea. He has written on North Korea’s global financial network and the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.