North Korea: Time for a "Normal" Strategy?

And blood in torrents pour in vain –– always in vain. For war breeds war again.

-John Davidson

Isolated, impoverished, and backward, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is nonetheless mentioned 18 times in the December 2017 United States’ National Security Strategy.[1] That it occupies such prominence in U.S. foreign policy is a testament to the intractability of the DPRK and its perceived threat to international security. The last 65 years of U.S. foreign policy has failed to ameliorate North Korea’s comportment or international standing. Therefore, to stabilize the region and achieve its desired outcome, the U.S. should abandon its current policy of sanctions and isolation, and instead, normalize diplomatic and economic relations with the DPRK as it did with Vietnam. Implementing such a stratagem can lead to peace on the peninsula by facilitating North Korea’s global integration, providing access to an isolated society, and fostering the gradual introduction of liberal ideals.

Divergent Koreas

U.S. foreign policy has been distinctively disparate towards the two Koreas in the six decades since the armistice was signed. Today, South Korea is a stable and democratic first-world nation with prospering communities. It is the world’s seventh largest export economy, has a positive trade balance of $93.7 billion, and a gross domestic product of $1.41 trillion.[2] Whereas South Korea has flourished in the post-armistice years, the DPRK remains isolated from much of the world and is propped up by its ideological bonds and trade with China and Russia. Mutual mistrust between Washington and Pyongyang since 1953 has resulted in a bipolar foreign policy that has both provided North Korea with billions of dollars in U.S. aid, and also targeted it with numerous sanctions.[3] The DPRK’s authoritarian regime and tight internal controls, coupled with biting sanctions, have created a largely insulated populace that lacks the means to address basic human needs. In contrast to the success of its neighbor only 2.5 miles south, North Korea possesses the 119th largest export economy and retains a negative trade balance of $640 million.[4] The presence of U.S. forces in South Korea and our mutual support agreements further raise North Korean suspicions concerning U.S. intentions on the peninsula.

U.S. Threats Exacerbate the Relationship

Until very recently the Trump Administration has continually increased the rhetoric and pressure on the regime. North Korea’s November 2017 reappearance on the list of state sponsors of terrorism prevents it from receiving U.S. foreign aid, bans defense exports and sales, and permits the U.S. to freeze the assets of those who trade with the DPRK.[5] In addition to these policy measures, President Trump has often taken a personal and antagonistic approach towards Kim Jong Un. The president has used social media to threaten North Korea and publicly bestowed monikers like “madman,” “sick puppy,” and “Little Rocket Man” on the despotic leader.[6] Unsurprisingly, Kim Jong Un has responded in kind while decrying President Trump as the “rabid man in the White House.”[7]

This bellicosity only inflames global tension, unnecessarily disquiets allies, and threatens the potential success of on-going diplomatic efforts. The sophomoric approach to foreign policy also belies the enormous tragedy that would result should violence erupt on the peninsula. Estimates of a conventional war include almost one million military and civilian casualties, $1 trillion in military operations and reconstruction, and potentially devastating environmental effects caused by damage to North Korea’s nuclear complex or South Korea’s nuclear reactors.[8] These numbers are irrespective of the human and economic costs associated with the refugee crisis sure to unfold.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visits to North Korea ahead of President Trump’s approaching summit are encouraging developments in the heretofore contentious relationship between the Administration and Kim Jong Un. While the previous policy has been arguably escalatory, an examination of the contemporary U.S.-Vietnam relationship offers an alternative framework for success that could be replicated in North Korea if the U.S. is willing to move beyond its emotional resistance to the regime and adopt a pragmatic approach.

Vietnam Case Study

In 1975, the Communist Parties of both North Korea and Vietnam found themselves isolated from the U.S. politically, diplomatically, and economically, causing their heavy reliance on China and the Soviet Union. However, while North Korea has continued its isolation into the twenty-first century, Vietnam instead began to explore ways to integrate globally after China and the Soviet Union each undertook reforms in the 1970’s and 1980’s.[9] Normalizing the U.S.-Vietnam relationship began in 1991 when travel restrictions between the two nations were lifted. This was followed by the opening of diplomatic offices in 1993, removal of the trade embargo in 1994, and full relations in 1995.[10] By 2016, the U.S. was Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner with $52.3 billion in two-way trade and $1.3 billion in U.S. foreign direct investment.[11] The relationship includes cooperation on human rights, religious freedom, climate change, nuclear and radioactive source security, wildlife trafficking, sustainable development, humanitarian assistance, and military training.[12] After 25 years of military engagement, the U.S. was unable to achieve that which it is now accomplishing through shared economic interests, collaboration, mutual respect, and the natural exchange of ideas.

After 25 years of military engagement, the U.S. was unable to achieve that which it is now accomplishing through shared economic interests, collaboration, mutual respect, and the natural exchange of ideas.

The contrast between North Korea, South Korea, and Vietnam is unequivocal. While the DPRK remains isolated and development lags far behind the rest of the world, the other nations enjoy robust economies, a thriving citizenry, and close international ties across a range of issues. There are certainly challenges to attaining similar success in North Korea, but the achievements of South Korea and Vietnam clearly demonstrate that global integration offers a far superior template for fundamental change and lasting peace than does a policy of isolation.

Normalizing North Korean Relations

The agenda for normalizing U.S.-Pyongyang relations should be modeled after the incremental U.S.-Hanoi approach, yet also take advantage of the momentum created by the April 27 summit between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un. While the summit produced few detailed plans, both leaders agreed in principle to pursue a permanent peace treaty. This now presents a natural opportunity for the U.S. to support South Korea by setting aside previous ambitions for regime change and championing efforts to turn the 1953 armistice into a peace agreement.[13] Establishing an agreement must also include Chinese support since they too were a signatory of the original armistice. However, China’s previous positions on this topic and desire for stability on the peninsula make them a likely ally in the process. Progressive steps would then follow a similar multi-year process used with Vietnam. Pursuing this methodology offers a viable conduit for changing the dynamics on the peninsula and in the region, while Kim Jong Un is provided security as well as access to the resources needed to lead his desired modernization efforts.

Challenges to Normalization

The greatest challenge to normalization is the U.S. government itself. Reversing six decades of foreign policy is likely to be met with resistance from sectors of Congress, the military, executive agencies, and the public.[14] Opponents would undoubtedly assert that normalization constitutes a clear victory for an oppressive regime that systematically violates basic human rights, engages in international crime and terrorism, and exports nuclear and missile technology.[15] Others would claim that normalizing relations with an obstinate third-world dictator demonstrates an unacceptable weakening of U.S. power that will have negative implications throughout the globe. Both of these positions are to some degree true, yet also immaterial. Ignoring North Korea’s nuclear status while preserving an emotional resistance to Kim Jong Un is short-sighted and overlooks the benefits of peace, economic trade, and global integration that could be achieved.

Any major shift in U.S. policy must be coordinated with South Korea to avoid the perception of abandonment or duplicity. However, the thawing relationship between North and South Korea provides the clearest indication that U.S. policy no longer reflects the political realities on the peninsula. President Moon Jae-In has achieved milestones that were unimaginable only a short time ago and approximately 60% of South Koreans now believe that peace is more likely to be achieved through face-to-face meetings rather than increased pressure.[16] At this juncture, hopeful declarations and pledges outpace meaningful action, but local attitudes toward North Korea have undeniably changed and the U.S. must now capitalize on this environment. Modifying U.S. foreign policy to support South Korean interests is not an indicator of weakness, but a show of good faith and commitment to supporting American allies as their sovereign needs dictate.

Finally, critics will argue that normalizing relations with North Korea will only encourage other nations to seek international concessions through their own nuclear policies. This possibility cannot be discounted; however, it ignores the current reality of a nuclear North Korea and speaks to the greater need for organizations such as the United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency, World Bank, and World Trade Organization to engage decisively to forestall the deleterious actions of other nations seeking nuclear weapons. Promisingly, 122 nations voted in support of a July 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.[17] No nuclear-armed states participated in the negotiations or signed the United Nations treaty. Nonetheless, this near-universal commitment to ending the proliferation of nuclear weapons suggests that a unified response to an emerging nuclear program is now possible in ways not previously feasible.


North Korea has a history of using the bargaining table to wrangle economic concessions from the international community while simply buying itself more time to continue developing offensive capabilities. Kim Jong Un’s newfound inclination for diplomacy could well be another ploy from this well-worn playbook. Nonetheless, reasonable observers can agree that North Korea’s possession of nuclear capability has changed peninsular dynamics and U.S. strategy must adapt in response. Denuclearization should still inform negotiations with the DPRK, but normalization ought not be predicated on this issue. Normalizing relations provides an opportunity to change North Korea through trade, interpersonal connections, and societal influences if the U.S. has the temerity to reverse direction and pursue this course of action. The issues that have plagued the region since 1953 will not be resolved immediately. But over time, the U.S. might yet bring about lasting peace on the peninsula.

Jeremy Beaven is a Marine Corps officer and a student at the U.S. Naval War College. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un (Getty Image via CNN)


[1] The White House, “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” December 2017, accessed January 16, 2018,

[2] “South Korea,” The Observatory of Economic Complexity, accessed January 3, 2018, /en/profile/country/kor/.

[3] Emma Chanlett-Avery and Ian E. Rinehart, “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation,” Current Politics and Economics of Northern and Western Asia, Vol. 23, No. 3, 333, ISSN: 2158-5865.

[4] “North Korea,” The Observatory of Economic Complexity, accessed January 3, 2018, /en/profile/country/prk/.

[5] Donna Borak, “Trump administration slaps more sanctions on North Korea,” CNN, November 22, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018,

[6] Saba Hamedy and Joyce Tseng, “All the times President Trump has insulted North Korea,” CNN, December 1, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018,

[7] Jamie Seidel, “North Korea: Kim Jong-un again threatens ‘rabid man in the White House’, President Donald Trump,” News Corps Australia Network, October 19, 2017, accessed March 1, 2018, finance/work/leaders/north-korea-kim-jongun-again-threatens-rabid-man-in-white-house/news-story/ 9b8cea9ea47fd649346d11f66 ab42fd3.

[8] John Feffer, “North Korea: The Costs of War, Calculated,” Foreign Policy In Focus, December 13, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018,

[9] Eleanor Albert, “The Evolution of U.S.-Vietnam Ties,” Council on Foreign Relations, November 9, 2017, accessed December 20, 2017,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Office of the United States Trade Representative, “Vietnam,” accessed January 7, 2018, countries-regions/southeast-asia-pacific/vietnam.

[12] Office of the Press Secretary, “Fact Sheet: United States-Vietnam Relations,” May 23, 2016, accessed December 20, 2017,

[13] Gregory J. Moore, “America’s Failed North Korea Nuclear Policy: A New Approach,” Asian Perspective, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2008, pp. 9-27, 21.

[14] David Lai, “Solving the North Korea Problem the Chinese Way,” The Diplomat, December 28, 2017, accessed January 21, 2018,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Julian Ryall, “Majority of South Koreans favor North Korean ‘friendship’,” DW, February 19, 2018, accessed March 1, 2018,

[17] “Treaty banning nuclear weapons opens for signature at UN,” UN News Centre, September 20, 1017, accessed February 5, 2018,