U.S. Needs to Engage North Korea Now over Nuclear Threat

06/10/2015 04:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

So here we are again.

Our nation's foreign policy finds itself focused on a most familiar place--Iran--as we near the midway point of June. Between now and the end of the month, the Obama Administration, along with the leaders of six other global powers, will try to seal a landmark nuclear deal with a country that has been at the center of U.S. attention for the better part of four decades now.

I find our long, exclusive fixation on Iran curious, to say the least, especially in light of the looming threat that is North Korea. For years we've talked endlessly about the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, while at the same time knowing full well that North Korea actually possesses them. Iran doesn't own any nukes and disavows them in its official statements, and our intelligence director has determined that the country has not made the decision to develop them. Meanwhile, it's been estimated that North Korea, a hereditary, communist dictatorship, currently has between 10 and 16 nuclear weapons in its military arsenal, all positioned within striking distance of South Korea, one of our major allies in the East Asia region.

And, still, so much of our foreign policy attention remains affixed to Iran, not North Korea, a totalitarian and isolated nation led by a regime that leads through fear and brutality. Indeed, North Korea is the most repressive state on the planet, and there's no indication this will change anytime soon, even if we believe that the country's reign of terror can't continue indefinitely and is ultimately doomed to fail.

Of course, doubting the long-term prospects of North Korea's regime presumes we know more than we do about a nation that has proven to be a challenging intelligence target. I'm frequently impressed by how little we know about North Korea and how wrong we've often been about its intents and motives. What's more, I am uneasy that the North Korean threat, as a whole, continues to stay on the back burner of U.S. foreign policy engagement, even though it's a threat that emanates from a volatile, unpredictable country and can be expected to erupt quickly if not carefully checked. To quote a 2013 U.N. report, North Korea has committed "unspeakable atrocities" on its people over even the smallest criticisms of the state, which have resulted in comprehensive economic sanctions levied by the U.S. and its international allies. The U.N. regularly moves to condemn North Korea for its human rights abuses. And yet North Korea continues to act aggressively to expand its military capabilities, including upgrading its main rocket launch site, increasing production on a growing stockpile of nuclear arms and improving its arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Clearly, these actions are extremely worrisome and demanding of our attention. But what do we do? And what should our overall strategy be? Currently, the U.S. approaches the North Korean problem with what President Obama calls "strategic patience." We seek to present the country's leaders with a choice: Reform or collapse. We've held on to this aim for several years, but haven't made much progress toward our objective, nor have we engaged the North Koreans in any substantive way.

Our lack of focus on and involvement with North Korea simply must change. However, we can't enter into this tricky foreign affairs challenge without a clear, coherent strategy that considers a number of critical elements. Among those elements is China, a key player in any strategy and an ally of North Korea. We have to persuade China not to fear the demise of the current North Korean regime.

Just recently, a group of international women activists, led by Gloria Steinem and two Nobel laureates, crossed the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korean in a symbolic march for peace. They then participated in several peace-related events in Seoul, South Korea. While it's difficult to say whether they made any progress toward their goal, we have to give them credit for trying, and their actions might one day be remembered as a milestone moment in changing the politics of the Korean Peninsula. For now, though, we should seek to support more non-governmental institutions getting into North Korea and look for ways to bring more information from inside the country back to the West and more information from the West into North Korea.

Perhaps most importantly, we must work to persuade North Korea that it will be much better off in a whole Korea that is open and free, but this effort suggests we will actually be willing to engage the country's leadership. North Korea seems to indicate a willingness to discuss its nuclear development, so long as there aren't preconditions and that we agree to talk about our own military exercises with South Korea. But it's my impression that we don't want to deal directly with the country's current regime. We're clearly holding back.

We insist on six-party negotiations, which come with their own set of complications, while continuing to levy tough economic sanctions against the country. Moreover, we refuse to engage in any new round of talks until North Korea agrees to halt its nuclear program. As secretive as the North Koreans continue to be, they've made it pretty clear that ceasing nuclear development is a total non-starter for the commencement of negotiations.

Apparently at least as far as I can tell, the U.S. has shut off any direct effort to engage the North Koreans. We keep talking about having talks, but we aren't ready to do so. In keeping with the strategic patience strategy, some keep hoping that North Korea will collapse, and it very well might. To this end, we have to be prepared for this potential occurrence, which could cause great instabilities in the region. But a collapse might not happen soon. North Korea maintains extremely tight control over its opposition, and there's no real indication that we're anywhere close to the ultimate solution: unification between the north and south.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula is dangerous and incredibly challenging, but we aren't bound to make any progress toward peace if we can't overcome our decades-long fixation with one country and our reluctance to directly engage with another that truly represents the larger nuclear threat.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Chairman, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.