America’s East Asian Security Strategy & North Korean Public Diplomacy


Written by Kwon, Soyoung for the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. Translated by NKR Intern Elizabeth Campbell. Original Korean article can be found at https://www.yinks.or.kr/.


The chief concerns of the Biden administration’s foreign security policy are improving multilateral cooperation, strengthening alliances and partnerships, and protecting democratic values. According to the National Security Strategy Guidelines released by the White House last year, they aim to “restore trust in the United States and its global leadership so that America, not China, can set the international agenda” and emphasized their intent to “expand its global influence to work with its allies to counter authoritarianism and spread democracy.” The core of the U.S.’s security strategy in the region is a policy of Chinese containment. It aims to establish an international rules-based order through the two-pronged expansion and deepening of its network of allied Asian nations alongside multinational organization-based security relations.

The security framework of the East Asian region is undergoing a period of rapid restructuring as a result of Sino-American competition and America’s Indo-Pacific strategy. The redrawing of the regional security map brings with it the formation of new institutions, mechanisms, and councils that can promote governance and solve the problems that inevitably arise from the varied policy goals of stakeholder nations. This raises the question of where to place North and South Korea in the U.S.’s masterplan for designing the security structure and strategic composition of the Asian region. Despite emphasizing the importance of the U.S./ROK alliance and mentioning the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the Biden administration has not yet addressed strengthening South Korea’s role in the overall Indo-Pacific strategy or released a comprehensive DPRK policy stance. Judging from the political climate in Washington, it seems as if North and South Korea have been pushed to the sidelines in the big picture of restructuring the Asian strategic structure around Sino-U.S. competition. The conflict between the U.S. and China has put South Korea in a difficult position. Deep-seated domestic issues such as inter-party policy conflict, economic interests, geographic proximity to China, and the question of Korean autonomy make it no easy task for South Korea to stand entirely on the side of the U.S. without reservation. North Korea has also shown a negative attitude towards the Biden administration’s North Korean policy. The Biden administration claims that its North Korean policy is a measured approach, unlike either the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy or the Trump administration’s “Big Deal” policy. However, only the overall stance of opening the door to a flexible diplomatic approach while also maintaining sanctions and pressure has been announced, without any sign of concrete details or methods.

Amid analysis that America’s North Korean policy is not seeking a short-term solution or approach, there exists an interesting trend in the flow of discussions between American policy regarding North Korean public diplomacy. Officials have repeatedly mentioned public diplomacy as a principled and practical policy for attaining the Biden administration’s parallel goals of a phased approach to total denuclearization and increasing pressure on the North Korean human rights issue. Until now, the issue of human rights in North Korea has been considered a means to apply strategic pressure on the North Korea regime as well as an obstacle in advancing North Korean nuclear talks. Despite this, the Biden administration has argued that the human rights issue and nuclear issue cannot be thought of separately. North Korea’s nuclear aspirations were made possible by the systematic and organized abuse of the rights of the North Korean people and their natural resources, and it is only through these violations that the North Korean government has achieved its present nuclear capabilities.

Public diplomacy aimed at denuclearization and the improvement of human rights in North Korea is targeted towards North Korean citizens rather than the regime, and it seeks to cultivate awareness of the violations being committed against their environment and human rights. In other words, comprehensive public diplomacy efforts are needed to help the flow of outside information to North Korean citizens to widen their worldview and encourage them to assert their rights. In this way change can be forced onto the regime and denuclearization can be achieved. Examining the policy proposals recently published by the Harvard Kennedy School, they have recommended that the White House:

  1. reaffirm that public diplomacy is an important tool in America’s overall pursuit of long-term foreign policy goals,

  2. determine and place emphasis behind the principal agents and targets of U.S. public diplomacy towards North Korea in order to solidify its direction, organization, and priorities,

  3. expand existing efforts to achieve the goals of getting information into North Korea, understanding North Korea, and pursuing the rights of North Korean citizens.

Meanwhile, as suggestions of concrete methods to overcome the imperfect and limited nature of present public diplomacy efforts are being made, various industry, research, academic, and government projects are also underway to funnel information into North Korea.

Using public diplomacy as a tool to push for change in North Korea is not a new idea. However, the North Korean public diplomacy policies currently being discussed are noteworthy in that they are being rearranged to fall in line with the logic behind the Biden administration's diplomatic and security strategy. Firstly, there are logical changes. Based on the idea that the development of nuclear weapons was made possible by depriving people of their human rights and that internal changes would bring about changes in regime behavior and force the government to give up its nuclear weapons, the denuclearization of North Korea, improvement of the lives of the North Korean people, and human rights issues in North Korea were all lumped together when searching for a solution. Sanctions against North Korea and pressure regarding the human rights issue align with a U.S. diplomatic and security goal at the center of Sino-U.S. competition, the protection and proliferation of democracy. Secondly, we can see a change in both speed and method. Under the premise that denuclearization cannot be achieved in the short term and that the North Korean leadership is unwilling to give up its nuclear weapons or missiles, America is taking a long-term, step-by-step approach and considering public diplomacy toward North Korea in an indirect manner rather than trying to solve all the issues at once. Representing a fundamental shift from a top-down to a bottom-up approach, American public diplomacy seeks to inform and influence the North Korean people to force their leadership to create internal change, given the assumption that such a change in North Korea’s domestic environment would be beneficial towards U.S. policy goals. Thirdly, America’s strategic values have changed. As the U.S.’s security strategy in Asia turns its focus on China, they are looking to reduce the burden of a North Korean policy which shifts according to external and internal circumstances, including North Korea’s attitude and the existence or lack thereof of South Korean cooperation. Therefore, long-term sustainable public diplomacy with North Korea is the best method to achieve the US policy goals of North Korean denuclearization and human rights improvement. Public diplomacy also plays a part in mutually strengthening other policy tools, such as diplomacy, economic sanctions, and U.N. resolutions. In that sense, it is emerging as a useful policy option for the American government. The central argument of the public diplomacy approach is that it is possible to change the behavior of the North Korean regime and encourage denuclearization by rethinking the limited and passive policies used thus far in favor of an active and affective approach aimed at delivering diverse content and sincere messaging to change the North Korean domestic environment and bring about internal change.

The Biden administration favors a flexible, pragmatic, and solution-oriented North Korea policy to pursue a larger goal rather than an all-encompassing solution. The fact that North Korean public diplomacy has been discussed in Washington as a means to support such an approach forecasts the significant role that public diplomacy will play in determining the shape of U.S. policy towards North Korea. It seems for the time being, expectations for the resumption of denuclearization talks between North Korea and the U.S. or for practical dialogue to resolve the nuclear issue will have to be tempered.


*** Kwon, Soyoung is a Research Fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies and a Professor at George Mason University Korea. The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


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