Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are at an all-time high — and continue to escalate following North Korea’s test of a missile that can supposedly reach Alaska.
It’s still possible to turn down the heat with small steps that could lead to more robust diplomacy later on. But this requires the political will to engage instead of trading threats.
The Obama administration’s approach to North Korea was “strategic patience” — basically, waiting for things to get better. It was an undeniable failure. And while the Trump administration once signaled an interest in diplomatic engagement, since then their saber rattling has pushed us even closer to the brink of war.
There’s another, better way forward. Observers have noted over several decades that when the U.S. has opened lines of engagement, North Korean missile tests have been scaled back or stopped all together.
Simply put, engagement works.
Diplomacy is the only option for addressing this conflict — war would be catastrophic. And diplomatic engagement even has the benefit of being supported by most Americans.
There are a number of options available for low-level diplomacy that can open lines of dialogue.
Addressing humanitarian concerns, for example, could lead to political progress, as it has between the U.S. and other countries. This can be done at lower levels of government, or even by non-government organizations.
I’ve seen firsthand the power of engagement to open important doors. I work for the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit organization that’s had a presence on the Korean peninsula since 1953, when we responded to calls for refugee assistance.
In particular, AFSC is one of the few U.S.-based organizations that’s kept a presence in the North since the 1980s, and we’ve done it through exchanges of delegations hoping to reduce tensions.
We didn’t originally intend to provide humanitarian aid at that time, but when famine struck we sprung into action. Because we’d opened lines of communication and identified the crisis early on, we were ideally positioned to help. Since the end of the famine, we’ve been working with farmers in the region on sustainable agriculture practices.
Ours has been the most continuous example of a successful relationship between U.S and North Korean-based organizations. And we’ve seen that engagement lead directly to opportunities to address a humanitarian crisis and save lives.
Peer-to-peer exchanges like those we participate in have the potential to open diplomatic lines of communication. But this requires a willingness to do the work of engagement from those in political power.
What other options might be on the table?
Retrieving U.S. veterans’ remains from North Korea and reunifying Korean families divided by the war are both important and politically viable humanitarian issues that need to be addressed before time runs out, as survivors of the Korean War are aging. Working together on those goals could prime the pump for further diplomacy.
Americans want to see diplomatic engagement with North Korea, not an escalation of tensions and the threat of nuclear war. We know proven methods for engagement can and do lead to further opportunities for diplomacy, and that diplomacy leads to a decrease in military tensions.
We know what we need to do to begin to address this conflict in a productive, non-violent manner. What we need now instead of military threats is the political will for real engagement.