How Would a Diplomat Deal With North Korea


North Korea has launched ballistic missiles passing over Japan before crashing into the sea. It claims to have successfully tested a thermonuclear device. Western politicians and media have responded with more less coherent outrage. Trump calls Kim Jongun “little rocket man”, denigrated the diplomatic efforts of his own Secretary of State and claimed there is only one way of dealing with N Korea (although he declines to say what it is. Nobody appears to have an effective answer, other than to demand that China (and/or Russia) fix it. This blog explores what a “diplomatic approach” might look like, and what the policy implications could be. By “diplomatic approach”, I do not mean what the media and most commentators mean when they talk about a diplomatic solution, which seems to amount to little more than any solution that does not involve bombing N Korea.


In recent blogs I have focused on what is diplomacy, or more precisely, what is it like to be a diplomat. Is there a way of being in or interacting with the world that is peculiarly diplomatic? If such discussions are to have real value, other than being a pleasant intellectual game, they should be able to offer clues to a “diplomatic way” of thinking about international issues or crises. In this case, they out to be able to offer clues to what a diplomatic way of thinking about the N Korea missile crisis would look like, and the implications it could have for policy making.


In previous blogs I have tried to identify the attributes shared by diplomats which might constitute a diplomatic way of looking at and engaging with the world: a diplomatic life-form or Lebensform. These include the ability to see and understand the linkages between the different issues and actors; the empathy that allows diplomats to see the issues through the eyes of other actors, including rivals and even enemies; the tendencies to see the world in shades of grey, rather than black and white, and manage acceptable outcomes, rather than insist on optimal solutions; and their socialisation into an international community of diplomats that allows them to maintain the conversation when others can’t. Given these attributes of a diplomatic life-form, and I do not claim the list is either exhaustive or definitive, what would a diplomatic approach to N Korea look like?


The key elements will include:

– Identify all the key actors and the relationships between them;
– Avoid facile moral judgements on the actors, or moral outrage;
– Analyse the situation through the eyes of the other actors, trying to understand their objectives, motivations and red-lines;
– Focus on managing an acceptable outcome rather than insisting on pursuing an optimal solution;
– Attempt to socialise all actors, as far as possible, within the international community of diplomats (and by extension within the international community of states).

We can identify the key actors: Russia, the US, Japan, S.Korea, China and N.Korea (neither the EU or the UK are relevant, and should learn from Chirac’s injunction to the Eastern Europeans at the time of the Iraq War: know when to keep quiet). To avoid taxing my readers’ patience, the rest of the blog will focus on China, Russia and N Korea.

Sultan Tuanku Alhaj Abdul Halim Mu'Adzam Shah of Malaysia Visits China

Seen through Beijing’s eyes, China’s priority is clear: keep Korea divided. China knows that any reunification in the foreseeable future will result in a pro-American Korea. Mao Zedong sacrificed 150,000 Chinese soldiers, including his own son, to keep the Americans away from the River Yalu in the 1950s. No Chinese leader can let them back, even less so one like Xi Jinping who is looking to build his own personality cult. The need to keep Korea divided means that China needs to maintain the Kim Jungun regime. It cannot risk regime collapse, which the US and South Koreans would use to force unification on their terms. This limits the pressure that Beijing is willing or able to put on the Kim regime. It also makes it reluctant to take on the risks of regime change. Kim knows this, and knows the leeway it gives him. US insistence therefore that China can control the Kim regime and needs only the will to do so, misses the point. China would no doubt like more control over N Korea. But a willful nuclear N Korea is better than no N Korea at all.


It sometimes seems, certainly from the western media, that the N Korean regime is mentally unstable, and beyond the pale of the international community. It is certainly murderous, though primarily of its own people. But it is not necessarily irrational. It seems capable of calculating effectively its room for manoeuvre in Beijing. Its overriding objectives are survival and international recognition. The former requires it to develop nuclear weapons, but not to use them. It has learnt well the lessons from Saddam Hussein (didn’t have nuclear weapons – overthrown by the west and killed) and Qadafi (collaborated with the west to dismantle his nuclear programme – overthrown by the west and killed). Possession of nuclear weapons is the regime’s best guarantee that the US will not move against them. However, using them would be suicidal inviting a massive counter-strike. The constant test flights and other provocations serve both to remind Washington of their military capabilities and as a cry for attention. Apart from survival, Kim wishes to be treated as another head of state. This is an opportunity.


In many respects Russia is the wild card in the pack. It no longer has any real interests in N Korea (even when the Soviet Union had ideological interests there, Stalin left the fighting, and the dying, to the Chinese) and no real skin in the game. However, Russia’s involvement in N Korea serves three main purposes for Putin. It again demonstrates that Russia is a global power, which must be taken into account in resolving international issues. It challenges China’s position in Pyongyang offering Kim an alternative patron, but more importantly offering a bargaining chip for China’s growing presence in Russia’s own backyard. And it tweaks Washington’s tail.


Against this analysis, what policies or strategy would a “diplomatic approach” to N Korea suggest:

– Make clear to China that the West does not support Korean unification and that any collaboration with China over N Korea is based on keeping N Korea divided. Liberals and neo-cons would argue this is morally repugnant for condemning the people of N Korea to life under a repressive regime. But the West’s record of regime change has not been one of unblemished success. Would inadvertently provoking a nuclear war be less repugnant?

– Learn to live with a N Korean nuclear bomb. Nuclear proliferation has been a steady process since 1945, yet the US remains the only country to have used them. It is difficult to argue that N Korea is less stable than Pakistan. In any case, it is difficult to identify policies that would remove N Korea’s nuclear capability without unacceptable risks.

– Mitigate the threat of N Korea’s nuclear weapons by socialising N Korea into the international community and its diplomats into the diplomatic community. The more N Korea and its diplomats are integrated in this way, the more likely that N Korea and its leaders will want to seek to behave as normal members of these communities. In the past, diplomacy has succeeded in socialising revolutionaries from the Soviet Union and China to Libya. But this means talking to them and spending time with them. Expelling N Korean envoys as a punishment for the nuclear programme, as Spain did recently, is worse than pointless. It is counter-productive.

– This is not to argue that the diplomatic approach is always the right one, or superior to other approaches. It can be argued that Chamberlain’s appeasement policies in 1937-9 embodied the diplomatic approach, and was not exactly successful. Rather it is to argue that if there is a way of being, or if seeing the world, that is diplomatic, then this ought to generate a diplomatic approach to international problems (which extends just talking rather than fighting).


One thought on “How Would a Diplomat Deal With North Korea

  1. You miss out some other obvious possibilities of a What If? type:

    Maybe the way to bring everyone together on this one is to use a very big What If? question, to get away from sterile bickering over Positions and drill down into real Interests and Needs.

    What if:

    – Korea is legally reunited under one flag in a complicated one-country-two-systems sort of way that USA/China/Russia/Japan together guarantee

    – It accepts as part of the deal a phased withdrawal of US forces and denuclearisation/neutrality

    Done. No-one is threatened. Everyone gets richer.

    More at

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