By Daniel Jasper


As the Olympic Games ended in Brazil, another set of games started in South Korea with much higher stakes though with considerably less fanfare: the U.S.-South Korean war games known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian. Despite threats from North Korea, the war games kicked off on August 22 involving 25,000 U.S. soldiers and 50,000 South Korean soldiers for twelve days of military exercises.

The exercises come at a particularly tense time in relations with North Korea. In July, the U.S. announced an updated list of sanctioned North Korean individuals, which included the country’s leader Kim Jong-un.  This followed several months of rising tensions after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January.

While the U.S. Forces Korea noted in a statement that the exercises are of a “non-provocative nature,” North Korea expressed grave concern over ‘decapitation’ exercises aimed at rehearsing the removal of the North Korean leadership. Perhaps unsurprisingly, North Korea launched a missile from a submarine just a few days after Ulchi Freedom Guardian got underway. And this week, North Korea fired three ballistic missiles off the coast of South Korea sparking widespread condemnation.

These headlines are all too familiar and indicative of the cyclical nature of the Korean conflict. This time last year, we saw a similar chain of events after a landmine explosion severely injured two South Korean soldiers. After the incident, South Korea resumed broadcasting over loudspeakers (for the first time in 11 years) across the DMZ, and tensions sharply rose toward the point of no return. Then, just as quickly as tensions rose they fell again when South and North Korea agreed to allow select families to reunite for a brief time.

As we witness another round of intensifying hostilities it’s clear that both sides are well-versed in preparations for war. What’s less clear, however, is how prepared they are for diplomacy.  The cycle of rising and falling tensions on the Peninsula have become a dance of militaristic showmanship followed by limited diplomatic outreach. And therein lies the problem- a failure to extend the logic behind military preparation to preparation for dialogue and diplomatic solutions.

While preparation never dictates success, it’s certainly correlated with success. It would be unthinkable for anyone to put forth a military strategy with untrained troops and no plan of attack. Why then would we expect a diplomatic solution to succeed without practice in cooperation and a real roadmap?

The North Korean Asterisk

With elections approaching, it’s clear that a major diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea is unlikely for the remainder of the Obama administration. Given Obama’s track record in foreign relations with countries like Iran, Cuba, Myanmar, and Viet Nam, North Korea remains the outlier of outliers and the only comparable country with which no real diplomatic movement has occurred during his Administration.

While the merits of Obama’s victories abroad may be up for debate, he has undeniably secured a legacy of engagement and an ability to chart new courses in foreign relations.  Yet Korea remains an exception.  As his tenure nears an end, Obama’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ has amounted to a policy of ‘kick the can down the road’ in the hopes that North Korea will voluntarily dismantle their nuclear weapons program.

In fact, North Korea remains an asterisk in almost all U.S. policy dimensions – from the ‘Korea Exception’ on US policy towards landmines to international exchange programs.  It’s the one place where we allow for the use of landmines, or the one place where we do not operate exchange programs (just to name a few examples). If Obama left the White House today, Korea would be an exception to his legacy as well.

But Obama’s time is not over, and given the state of relations between the US and North Korea, there is considerable urgency. Looking ahead, careful thought should also be given to how relations will carry over to the next administration as hostilities are unlikely to cease on account of the US election cycle.

The problem is often framed as a diplomatic dichotomy – either dialogue on solving the entire conflict or a halt in any substantial communication. The failure to fully explore the spectrum of diplomacy, however, has lasting consequences that will almost certainly impact prospects of breakthroughs in the future. Considering the urgency of the Korean crisis and its significance to future security, the US needs to consider a broad range of low-level diplomacy options in order to prepare for a larger resolution to the broader conflict.

Engagement Games

The spectrum of diplomatic options is limited only by the Administration’s lack of creativity. Engagements such as retrieving the remains of US veterans left in North Korea after the Korean War offer less costly forms of diplomacy that also address real humanitarian issues for Americans. The families of US Korean War veterans are aging, and the prospects for closure for them are dwindling fast. Similarly, Korean Americans who were divided from their families in the aftermath of the war are also aging, and the opportunity to reunite them with their relatives is fading quickly.

Disturbingly, the U.S. chooses to marginalize these humanitarian issues affecting Americans in order to make the point to North Korea that the US is a tough negotiator. Not only are we perpetrating rifts among families and ignoring US veterans, we are forgoing opportunities for small-scale cooperation that can prepare diplomats for the long-term dialogue that will undoubtedly be necessary to resolve the broader conflict.

Other lower-profile diplomatic options exist outside of the humanitarian realm as well. International exchange programs have been an elementary yet critically powerful foreign policy tool for the last century. Exchanges have been used to build bridges between the US and a number of its adversaries such as the USSR, China, Iran, Myanmar, Cuba and Vietnam. They are extremely effective at the individual level (for example, former South African President F.W. de Klerk attributed his shift in perspective on race relations to his time on a US exchange program).  Exchange programs activate bureaucratic processes and push each side to work through challenges together.

International exchange programs or the above-mentioned humanitarian actions are akin to ‘engagement games’ where diplomats and officials can go through low-stakes ‘dry-runs’ of cooperation. The skills and cross-cultural knowledge of working with one another cannot be overstated, and through these ‘engagement games,’ both sides could reasonably expect to retain and elevate these diplomatic capacities to higher-level dialogues when the time comes – just as generals would expect the more prepared their soldiers are, the better the chances of victory.

Paving the Way for the Next Administration

Having just returned from North Korea in May where I completed a feasibility assessment with the American Friends Service Committee of US government-sponsored exchange programs, it’s clear that exchange programs are both possible and strategically advisable if a diplomatic solution is truly the US’ objective. Programs such as the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) offer existing mechanisms to carry out these exchanges. Logistical concerns are not a true obstacle as these hurdles are nothing the State Department hasn’t faced in the past with other “sensitive” countries. Further, these programs do not undermine high-level positioning as these types of programs have operated during times of fragile diplomacy and high-level dialogues.

In fact, none of the above options would necessarily require a drastic or retrogressive movement of US policy towards North Korea. The current sanctions do not interfere with any of the above options, for example. The US Treasury Department has procedures in place to ensure that exchange programs do not transfer sensitive information, that participants are clear of sanctions designations and that all other regulatory measures are enforced during an exchange visit.

Moreover, the issue of veterans’ remains retrieval actually received categorical exemption by Congress in the latest round of sanctions placed on North Korea in February – meaning any operations related to the recovery of US veterans’ remains in North Korea are exempt from any obstacles sanctions might pose.

There is existing legislation in Congress on the issues of recovering the remains of US veterans in North Korea as well as reuniting Korean Americans with their family members in North Korea. While no legislation currently exists on people-to-people exchanges with North Korea, the issue could easily be folded into the North Korean Human Rights Act, which comes up for reauthorization at the end of the year. Yet these policy options continue to sit in a state of limbo as Washington fails to capitalize on these programs even though they would benefit important American constituencies and have real diplomatic value.

Separated families of North and South Korea reunite for one week in North Korea (October 2015).
U.S. Veteran of Korean War visited North Korea in 2013 in hopes of finding remains of fallen soldier.

As Obama prepares to leave office he has time to remove the Korean asterisk from his legacy, and while a major diplomatic breakthrough is unlikely, he can still be remembered for charting a new course in US-North Korean relations. ‘Engagement games’ offer Obama the opportunity to ensure that his successor does not fall victim to the same cycle of hostilities that his administration and so many more before him did.

Nelson Mandela once remarked, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” Finding those points to work together can be difficult but not impossible. Obama may not be able to make headway on high-level dialogue, but he still has time to set the stage for a future partnership.


Daniel Jasper is AFSC’s Public Education and Advocacy Coordinator for the Asia Region. His work focuses on improving relations between the US and Asian countries where AFSC operates such as North Korea, China, and Myanmar.


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