A Moment to Engage North Korea

A moment for reaching out.

Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Kim Jong Un’s recent cybershenanigans only add to the list of reasons for the U.S. to isolate the North Korean regime: its growing nuclear arsenal, its increasingly sophisticated ballistic missiles, its appalling brutalization of its people. Yet these are also precisely the reasons the U.S. should seek to engage Pyongyang.

Although some in Congress are convinced that more powerful sanctions will eventually spark a revolt against Kim, a years-long effort to cut off the North Korean regime has not produced any viable opposition. At this point, spurred by tentative market reforms, the country's economy appears to be growing modestly. And though China is clearly tiring of Kim, it is not about to abandon its long-time proxy; China remains keen to prevent a collapse in the North that would result in a reunified, U.S.-allied Korea. (Officials in Beijing were careful even to play down the recent killing of four Chinese citizens by a rogue North Korean soldier.)

If anything, the boy-dictator who came to power three years ago has grown more powerful -- especially since the public purge and execution of his uncle Jang Son Thaek. In his New Year’s Day message, Kim was confident enough to suggest detente with South Korea and a summit with President Park Geun Hye, whom the North Koreans had previously derided as a “capricious whore.”

Much of this rhetoric isn’t new, and the U.S. was right to reject Pyongyang’s spurious offer to suspend nuclear testing in return for calling off joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises. Nevertheless, Kim, who has sought to take credit for improving standards of living among the North’s tiny-but-growing middle class, is beginning to look outward. Eager for investment from some source other than China, he has more reason to make a deal now than at any point in his leadership.

Neighbors have noticed. Park has said she is open to eventually sitting down with Kim “without preconditions.” Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also held out the prospect of a summit, if Pyongyang properly accounts for and repatriates Japanese citizens abducted by its spies in past decades. In May, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is set to play host to Kim at World War II anniversary celebrations in Moscow -- Kim’s first overseas trip while in office. With its refusal even to talk until North Korea agrees to denuclearize, the U.S. risks falling out of step with its erstwhile partners in the Six-Party Talks.

The chances are nil that Kim will negotiate away the very weapon that gives North Korea leverage against the U.S. (Don’t think leaders in Pyongyang didn't notice what happened to Muammar Qaddafi of Libya after he signed away his nukes.) A smarter long-term strategy for the U.S. would focus on changing the nature and calculus of the regime, to the point where it no longer finds a nuclear arsenal essential to its survival.

The U.S. can begin by supporting Park’s and Abe’s efforts to reach out. Behind the scenes, Washington should dangle the carrot of at least low-level diplomatic relations, as it has recently with Cuba. A mission in Pyongyang -- something the U.K. and India already have -- should be viewed not as a reward for bad behavior, but as a window into North Korea that U.S. officials have never had.

U.S. spy chief James Clapper and other recent visitors to Pyongyang have described legitimate divisions within the regime: between older and younger officials, and between hardliners and those who might be described as economic technocrats. No one imagines that the more open-minded elements are about to usher in democracy. But continued isolation only starves them of oxygen and generally encourages a paranoid mind-set.

In time, the goal should be to encourage internal efforts to integrate the North Korean economy into the region’s. The steadily expanding aspirations of Kim's own people will ultimately be the greatest threat to his rule.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.