At a time when the rumor mill is spinning out of control on North Korea-US relations, a group of international experts has called for a radical reappraisal of the wider world’s relations with the isolated, heavily sanctioned and nuclear-armed state.

In recent days, unconfirmed reports in both high-profile South Korean and US media have speculated that working-level negotiators from Pyongyang and Washington may meet within weeks; that sanctions relief may be offered in return for a closure of a key North Korean facility; or that Washington may be prepared to accept a nuclear freeze rather than full disarmament.

In this hothouse atmosphere, a study, “Report of the International Study Group on North Korea Policy,” calls for a revamp of global policy toward North Korea, based on pragmatism, a broader approach and a recognition of decades of failure. The report, published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and produced by 14 co-authors from Canada, Japan, South Korea, the UK and the US, focuses on security, economic policy, human security and diplomacy.

Policy re-set

Adam Mount, director of the Defense Posture Project at the FAS and one of the directors of the report, recalled  North Korea’s strategic weapons tests of 2017 that indicated that a North Korean ICBM could hit the US mainland as he told foreign reporters on Friday that it’s “an important time to reassess our assumptions on strategy.”

Another report co-author, Sokeel Park, added, “The report is calling for a mindset shift – a call for a recognition that we have failed” in North Korean policy.

Mount, the director of the Defense Posture Project at the FAS, called for a “threshold agreement” that would pragmatically establish “the minimal acceptable conditions for stability on the peninsula,” thus preventing the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and obviating any proliferation.

This agreement would include provisions that not only neutralize current threats, but also give the international community a stake in North Korean development. “We need to both manage a wide range of threats and engage in policies to shape North Korea’s evolution over time,” Mount advised.

Mount was scathing about US President Donald Trump’s approach to North Korea.The Trump administration’s laser focus on “total denuclearization” has caused the neglect of virtually all other areas of North Korea policy, he said

“This all-or-nothing policy has left us with nothing so far,” he said. “The Trump administration seems to be motivated by the presidential interest in controlling the negotiating process himself and reaping the benefits related to visibility.”

It became clear after the February bilateral summit in Hanoi that while North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had offered a deal that would include the verified closure of its central nuclear facility, Yongbyon, in return for sanctions relief, Trump had demanded the closure of all nuclear sites in the country.

“Hanoi shows the risks of ‘Go big or go home,’” Park, the South Korean country director of NGO Liberty in North Korea, said.

Trump’s highly personalized relations with Kim “have come at the expense of working-level negotiations,” Mount said. Moreover, “this policy approach has not been well coordinated across agencies,” he added.

Gaining a threshold agreement that would cap atomic arms with Kim at this particular time is critical, Mount maintained, for North Korea currently stands between two very different kinds of nuclear weapons programs.

‘Kim Jong Un might accept a rudimentary nuclear arsenal as opposed to one that is diverse and sophisticated,” Mount said., adding that there are “advancements Kim could pursue, beyond a credible retaliatory ability, to a more coercive ability.”

It is, he said, an important time to have a threshold agreement “to avoid these potential developments.”

Building trust, widening relations

If trust is established via a threshold agreement that would include “a more flexible sanctions regime,” it could lead to “a range of consistent interactions with North Korea,” Mount asserted. Those interactions would include “a multilateral framework to assess and administer economic projects in North Korea” – projects that would “shape North Korea’s economy over time.”

Arguing that the ongoing embargo on North Korea “is not a long-term solution,” Park stated that the currently heavy sanctions regime not only has failed to prevent North Korea going critical, but also “plays into the worst instincts of the North Korean narrative and system.”

While sanctions cause economic pain, they also reinforce regime messaging that the woes of ordinary North Koreans are not the fault of the national leadership, but of the outside world.

Economic incentives might be well received, Mount said, as not only has Kim publicly promised economic upgrades but also there are significant players within the North Korean elite who have a vested interest in economic engagement with the world beyond North Korea.

Even so, Mount lambasted Trump’s reversal of previous presidential policies toward North Korea, in which he has taken a top-down approach and personally engaged with the nation’s leader in a series of high-profile meetings.

“Cosmetic and symbolic steps don’t help us move forward,” he said. “They should be left aside.”

Co-author Park agreed. “Part of the reason for the failure of North Korean policy is not having a wholistic, long-term approach,” he said.  Park suggested both cooperative and non-cooperative policies.

The former would include the de-linking of humanitarian aid from political concerns, more people-to-people exchanges and feasible, ground-level action on human rights – such as the rights of the disabled, women and children.

The latter would include the ongoing provision of information to North Koreans such as radio broadcasts into the state that counter state narratives.

Pragmatic moves on human rights

Park blasted the belief held by some that human rights should be left off the agenda with North Korea to clear the space for progress on denuclearization.

“If Kim wants to engage with the world – and he is in engagement mode –  I don’t think raising human rights will have him storming out of the room,” Park said. He added that North Korea does engage with UN bodies on some human rights issues – such as the rights of the disabled – which indicates that there is some “low hanging fruit” that could be grasped.

Given the pressure Western leaders come under from their own electorates on human rights, Park called the issue “an important factor in long-term relations.”

It is also critical for the world to make clear to the regime the seriousness of human rights, he said. “The first thing is to signal the importance of it, so that they know it is an important factor.”

Moreover, human rights issues can be factored into economic assistance projects, Mount suggested.

These could include letting foreign firms hire their own staff, applying International Labor Organization Standards to projects, and ensuring no gender or class discrimination in the workplace, he said.