Since December 2014, many Korea observers have wondered if progress in United States’ relations with Cuba and Iran might spill over to North Korea. After fifty years of Cold War hostility and economic embargos toward Cuba, President Barack Obama met with Raul Castro, President of the Council of State, this past weekend in Panama City. History was very much on Obama’s mind. At a news conference, he said: “It was time for us to try something new… to engage more directly with the Cuban government and the Cuban people. And as a consequence, I think we are now in a position to move on a path towards the future.”
So, why doesn’t the U.S. government have a similar political desire to change history towards a better future with North Korea? Regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and its economic and political institutions, the different goals between the U.S. and North Korea have hardened. Additionally, Washington has held diplomatic talks with Pyongyang many times since the 1990s, but negotiations fell apart many times. The collapse of the Leap Day Agreement of February 2012, in which North Korea agreed to cease missile tests but then promptly broke the promise by launching a satellite, sealed what many in D.C. call “North Korea fatigue.” The U.S. has had more consistent and focused negotiations with both Iran and Cuba in recent years. Iran and Cuba have not been so erratic and contradictory, whereas those terms have become synonymous with the North.
In December 2014, President Barack Obama reoriented U.S. policy toward formal reconciliation. This past weekend in Panama, he and Raul Castro met for the first time. The meeting was amicable. President Obama is expected to announce taking Cuba off the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a necessity for the restoration of full diplomatic normalization and economic exchanges.
More recently, on April 2, the long and intense negotiating process among the P+5 nations and Iran to create the framework for stopping Iran’s weapons-grade nuclear activities ended. Although the media has not focused attention on this aspect, a high level of professionalism and mutual respect among the negotiators facilitated the continuation of the U.S.-Iran talks. Respect for the other side’s negotiating capability, willingness to follow diplomatic protocol, and acceptance that compromise is an integral part of any negotiation process were critical to successful diplomacy.
Understanding that the art of diplomacy is a complex dance, where a few missteps might be permissible as long as the partners stay mutually engaged and connected throughout the process is something North Koreans must learn and practice.
But a zero-sum mentality drives Pyongyang, and it lacks credibility, which is vital to constructive relations among nations, even those who consider each other enemies. The North is viewed as a government and people who lack honor in keeping their word. Not only Americans, but South Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Australians, Southeast Asians, Africans, and Europeans share this view. Even if people around the world want to do business or diplomacy with North Korea, North Koreans do not inspire confidence.
Most important, Tehran has taken courageous steps toward improving the living conditions for its people by agreeing to invasive monitoring by foreign actors. Pyongyang lacks such concern for people’s welfare and the courage that is required for improving their lives.
It is highly unlikely the Obama administration will be interested in diplomatic engagement with the North. Pursuing normalization with Cuba and continuing negotiations with Iran and with members of the U.S. Congress will be a full-time job.
Washington has its hands full managing crises in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and ongoing terrorist threats around the world. And now, Iran and Cuba are priorities before Obama ends his presidency. At this point, any initiative to improve U.S.-North Korea relations lies more in Pyongyang’s hands than Washington’s. But if in the future, Pyongyang is genuinely interested in substantive negotiations, Washington should extend to North Korea the open hand and good will that President Obama extended to Tehran: In Obama’s words, “There may be ways of structuring a final deal that satisfy their pride, their optics, their politics, but meet our core practical objectives.”