Breaking the Diplomatic Deadlock with North Korea


As 2022 begins with two North Korean missile launches in the first two weeks of the year, the United States still has an opportunity to jumpstart diplomacy with North Korea. Despite the U.S. Department of State’s unrequited offer to meet North Korean negotiators “anywhere, anytime,” there are several steps the Biden administration can take now to both encourage diplomacy and enhance the chances of success when it does occur.

Diplomacy is deadlocked for a variety of reasons. After three historic face-to-face meetings between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, Trump managed to “[shift] the paradigm with North Korea in style but not in substance,” in the words of Uri Friedman. An analysis of correspondence between Trump and Kim revealed fundamental misperceptions that existed between both leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic led to North Korea closing its borders, and the pandemic, coupled with sanctions, heightened the country’s isolation. In addition, the Biden administration adopted a more conventional approach to North Korea than Trump’s direct and personal diplomacy.



Despite these and other factors, there is still some hope for diplomatic progress, particularly should the Biden administration undertake the following actions. These recommendations are designed to not only to pique North Korean interest in negotiations on topics that will help to protect American interests and lives, but also apply lessons learned from past negotiations to deliver substantial results once negotiations resume.

Reframe the Negotiation Strategy From Denuclearization to More Practical Issues

The denuclearization of North Korea is an admirable goal, albeit one that is unlikely to be realized anytime soon. A more practical approach would be to prioritize efforts to end North Korean cyber crime.

This does not mean the Biden administration should abandon efforts to denuclearize North Korea. However, diplomacy, sanctions, isolation, and other means have all proven unsuccessful thus far at halting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. A realigned strategy better acknowledging that denuclearization is more of a long-term goal will help to create an environment more conducive for diplomatic progress on other issues that also pose a threat to American interests and citizens.

Cyber crime is a relatively low-risk way for Pyongyang to generate funding even in the face of harsh sanctions and closed borders. By late 2019 one collective of North Korean cyber criminals was estimated to be responsible for the theft of up to $2 billion. It was also reported North Korean hackers stole a record $400 million in 2021 in cryptocurrency alone. And with no immediate end in sight for those sanctions and closed borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s likely the North Korean leadership will direct its hackers to continue engaging in cyber crime in 2022.

This is an issue that can and does affect the lives, careers, and finances of everyday Americans. North Korea already demonstrated its cyber capabilities and willingness to attack Americans in the 2014 Sony hack. By demonstrating a clear pathway for greater integration into the licit economy in exchange for ending cyber crime, such as through select sanctions relief, the Biden administration can provide an incentive for North Korea to return to diplomatic talks. Such incentives would be of mutual interest for the United States and North Korea. Kim signaled that improving the economy will be a national priority in 2022, and American public opinion indicated that preventing cyber attacks should be the top foreign policy goal for the United States in the 2021 Chicago Council Survey. 83 percent of those surveyed listed this as a “very important” foreign policy goal for the United States.

In addition to addressing a pressing threat to American security, successful diplomacy that mitigates or ends North Korean cyber crime could also lead to breakthroughs that advance the long-term goal of denuclearization. It can build confidence in both Pyongyang and Washington about the potential for successful, phased diplomacy. For example, a reduction or cessation of cyber crime could also serve the purpose of denying North Korea funding for other activities of concern such as its nuclear and missile programs. Yet targeted sanctions relief that offers more opportunities to operate in the licit economy should be designed, to the extent possible, to provide opportunities for North Koreans outside of the country’s leadership to improve their lives while fully demonstrating the economic potential of this path. If the North Korean leadership becomes convinced that it is in their interest to step away from illicit economic activities, such as cyber crime, and enter the licit economy, tensions between the United States and North Korea may begin to diffuse. As those tensions ebb, the North Korean leadership’s calculus on the necessity of its nuclear weapons program may also evolve over time.

In the meantime, American leaders need to invest more in cyber defense, shore up critical infrastructure that may be at risk, and deepen public-private partnerships and communication to raise awareness of cyber risks.

Leader-to-Leader Diplomacy Is Essential

Trump made history as the first sitting U.S. president to meet face-to-face with the sitting leader of North Korea. Given the nature of North Korea’s political system and the power Kim exerts, this level of engagement may be necessary to execute successful diplomacy.

Trump’s meeting not only opened the door to leader-to-leader diplomacy but also helped mitigate some of the political risk of direct engagement with North Korea for his successors in the Oval Office. Indeed, Biden already indicated he would be willing to meet Kim, though with caveats including “that there’s discussion about his nuclear arsenal.”

Yet that caveat may be hindering effective diplomacy on other critical issues. Biden has many talented and capable staff members in his administration working on North Korea policy. To empower them to successfully execute policy and diplomacy, leader-to-leader meetings will be necessary to agree on a framework for working-level talks. Such meetings also can help to gather more information about the plans and intentions of the North Korean leadership.

First making progress on important but more attainable short-term goals, such as mitigating cyber crime, may open the door to more fruitful future conversations between both leaders and their negotiators on denuclearization.

Proactively Engage the U.S. Congress and Encourage Members to Exert Their Oversight Function

Any U.S. president will need the support of Congress for diplomacy with North Korea to succeed. The oversight functions and powers related to foreign affairs afforded to Congress by the Constitution ensure the legislative branch can either complicate or bolster the executive branch’s foreign policy priorities.

Active congressional engagement can also build confidence in the sustainability of any agreements ultimately reached with North Korea. After Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Paris climate agreement, and other previous agreements, there may be concerns in Pyongyang over whether a future American president could simply reverse any agreements not to his or her liking. Bipartisan congressional engagement can be one measure to signal the sustainability of an agreement over time.

In a recent report of policy recommendations published by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, I outlined a series of steps to bolster congressional engagement on North Korea policy. These actions are designed to encourage more effective policymaking and align the executive and legislative branches on critical foreign policy issues related to North Korea.

Congress has a long history of direct engagement with North Korea. In 1980, nearly four decades before the first Trump-Kim summit, it was a member of Congress, Stephen Solarz, who became the first sitting American official to visit North Korea and meet with Kim Il Sung after the signing of the Korean War armistice. Subsequently, dozens of members of Congress and staff members visited North Korea and engaged directly with North Korean officials. Yet the 117th Congress counts only two members who are known to have visited North Korea.

With the number of members of Congress who have visited North Korea at its lowest number in over two decades, it is important that lessons from past engagement are not lost in order to maximize the chances for successful engagement in the future. More current and former legislators and staff should participate in Track 1.5 and Track II dialogues, and historians studying North Korea should establish an oral history project documenting lessons learned directly from former members and staff who engaged directly with North Korean officials. It is also important to invest in a legislative branch that is knowledgeable about North Korea. Expanding access to the Open Source Enterprise for more congressional staff and making investments in the Congressional Research Service are among initial steps to accomplish this.

Biden served approximately 36 years in the U.S. Senate and Vice President Kamala Harris served approximately four years for a total of nearly four decades of combined experience in the Senate. Their relationships and understanding of the legislative branch, as well as direct outreach signaling the administration wants to engage members on North Korea policy, should be used more effectively to make Congress an ally on policies related to North Korea.

Take Actions to Support Principled Engagement

The Biden administration should encourage principled engagement, particularly by increasing humanitarian assistance, facilitating divided family reunions, and further pursuing the return of the remains of American servicemembers from the Korean War.  This should be done not just through words but through actions.

These are all issues on which a sustained commitment can demonstrate America’s values in action given the positive effects they would have on the lives of both ordinary Americans and North Koreans. Giving closure to family members of American veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Korean War, offering an opportunity to elderly Korean Americans to reconnect with separated family members, or providing food security to the average North Korean offers an opportunity for those seeking positive change to appeal to the humanity of leaders in both countries. While these issues have been raised with varying degrees of success in the past, continued resolve is critical to demonstrate the American commitment to such important issues.

The administration has already missed two major opportunities to signal support for principled engagement: its North Korea policy review and its sanctions review. Neither policy review significantly changed the status quo or better clarified specific actions the administration would take to lead to progress on policy challenges related to North Korea.

Signaling to North Korea that the United States will support principled engagement may also help encourage a return to diplomatic talks. One immediate step that could be taken is for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to lift restrictions on American passport holders for travel to North Korea.

Already, the administration has taken some positive initial steps on these Trump-era restrictions by permitting certain humanitarian workers to receive multiple-entry special validation passports. With North Korea’s borders currently closed, this step will be largely symbolic initially, though still an important signal to the leadership in Pyongyang that the U.S. administration is serious about long-term engagement. By actively taking additional steps to demonstrate openness to principled engagement, the administration will also show concern for some of the most vulnerable North Koreans. This is particularly important right now with humanitarian aid funding levels falling to their lowest level in 2021 since the United Nations began tracking such data in 2000.

Nominate an Ambassador to South Korea

The Biden administration stresses the need for active coordination and communication with allies and partners. In general, the administration has paired its actions with its words on this pledge. However, nearly one year into Biden’s term, a U.S. ambassador to South Korea has yet to be nominated. A nomination for this key post should be made in the near future to ensure the administration’s commitment to keeping high-level coordination and communication open with a critical ally, especially one that provides such an important link in America’s North Korea policy.

Biden promised “a new era of relentless diplomacy” around the world in his first address before the U.N. General Assembly. Yet to show the American people, as well as American allies and partners, that such relentless diplomacy can yield results it is time to recalibrate the administration’s approach to North Korea through these initial steps.



Matt Abbott is the director of Government and Diplomatic Programs at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Find him on Twitter @M_J_Abbott. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent any institutional positions.

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