U.S. Vice President Joe Biden listens to Colonel James Minnich, Secretary of the United Nations Command, Military Armistice Commission (2nd R) at the border village of Panmunjom, at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the military border separating the two Koreas, December 7, 2013. A building at left is North Korea’s observation post. REUTERS/Lee Jin-man/Pool
A bold peace offensive to engage North Korea

Co-written by Frank Aum

Early next year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is expected to present the new Joe Biden administration with a provocative housewarming gift, most likely a missile test. This aggressive conversation piece would seek to shift attention back to the Korean Peninsula and kickstart diplomacy on Pyongyang’s preferred terms. But experts fear this move would not only advance North Korea’s capabilities and threaten the United States and its allies, but also produce the opposite of Pyongyang’s intended effect. North Korea’s belligerence would elicit international condemnation, necessitate economic and military countermeasures, undermine the peace-building constituency, and precipitate a downward spiral that could take years to reverse.

Rather than passively awaiting a provocation as a fait accompli, U.S. and South Korean policymakers should work together proactively to preempt this scenario. The Biden administration, in coordination with Seoul, should mount a peace offensive of conciliatory initiatives undergirded by strong deterrence to promote de-escalation and achieve a new dialogue with Pyongyang. This strategy, introduced by social psychologist Charles Osgood in the 1960s as graduated reciprocation in tension reduction (GRIT), would maintain denuclearization as a long-term U.S. goal, but does not require it as an immediate concession for U.S. accommodation. Rather, the strategy moves U.S. conciliatory actions up front to facilitate the reciprocal confidence-building measures necessary for building a new security relationship with North Korea, which is a prerequisite for attaining the denuclearization goal. However, the Biden team needs to move quickly, since Pyongyang will likely be hardening its own hawkish policy direction at the upcoming Korean Workers’ Party Congress in January 2021.

This article describes the GRIT framework, provides past examples of its use, including by the two Koreas, and then proposes a potential U.S. GRIT approach to North Korea.

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.

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