By Junsoung “Steve” Kim, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor and Benjamin Fu, HRNK Research Intern
July 28, 2020
North Korea and China are close allies in terms of socio-economic development, and China's growing influence over North Korea and the international community has made it hard for the United States and its allies to reach valid agreements with North Korea. There is strong evidence of bilateral trade between the two countries, such as oil transactions, which are illegal according to United Nations Resolution 2375.
To bring real diplomatic change with North Korea, the United States needs to reduce China’s influence on North Korea through cultural diplomacy comparable to President Nixon’s “Ping Pong Diplomacy”. Different cultures affect how individuals behave and think in the international negotiations process. The United States has used cultural soft power to appeal to other nations with different values, ideas, and social and political systems. Since the Cold War era, the United States has been actively using cultural diplomacy to maximize cultural and diplomatic influence on target nations including Vietnam and China. The United States can successfully initiate a beneficial relationship with the North Koreans based on historical examples and acts of cultural diplomacy and present appealing diplomatic suggestions to Kim Jong-un and the North Korean ruling class, which can start a propitious relationship.
Currently, the United States and North Korea are in a stagnant relationship. President Donald Trump has made efforts to bridge the gap between the two nations by implementing a carrot and stick diplomatic approach towards North Korea, a metaphor for the combination of rewards and punishments to obtain desired behavior from the other party. For that reason, the Trump administration has applied strong sanctions and military pressure on the North. At the same time, President Trump has emphasized that North Korea will be a prosperous nation if it denuclearizes and normalizes relations with the United States. This effort has resulted in several historical meetings in Singapore, Hanoi, and the demilitarized zone (DMZ), yet all attempts have proven unfruitful.
An Untrustworthy Alliance: Sino-North Korea Relations
China and North Korea have been allies who benefit mutually through a shared national interest. However, Franz-Stefan Gady, a fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote an op-ed for The Diplomat, pointing out that the Kim family has not had confidence in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since the Deng Xiaoping era. Irrespective of their strong ties, North Korean authorities lack absolute trust in the Chinese because China invaded Vietnam in 1979 and Chinese socialist ideology incorporates capitalism into its structure. Interestingly, Kim Jong-un previously executed senior government officials including uncle Jang Song-thaek, and had half-brother Kim Jong-nam assassinated. The two relatives were pro-China figures and key players in China's relationship with North Korea. These events suggest that Pyongyang might not completely trust Beijing and confirms Gady's assertion that North Koreans’ distrust of the Chinese is due to China's growing infiltration of North Korean society and its intervention in domestic affairs.
Thomas Byrne, President and CEO of the Korea Society, pointed out that international sanctions have damaged North Korea, but the closing of the borders with China and Russia over the past several months to stop the spread of coronavirus has severely weakened the North Korean economy. Consequently, Kim is running out of regime funds, and the North Korean leadership is demanding that North Korean elites contribute more money to the Kim regime this year. Traditionally, North Korean elites are individuals who are members and families of the Workers’ Party, and the Korean People’s Army. In recent years, the donju, money masters, or lords, became a new elite class that gained its wealth from the quasi-state endorsed market. Kim Jong-un must satisfy those elite groups to sustain political power. However, the pandemic and the current geopolitical and economic conditions in North Korea make the elites worry about the regime’s ability to protect their vested rights and wealth. If North Korea cannot access external financial routes, North Koreans will need a justification or a breakthrough to establish diplomatic relations with the United States.
Cultural Diplomacy is a Proven Tactic to Normalize Relationships
Washington has been demanding that the North abandon its nuclear weapons development. To achieve its goals of persuading North Korea to denuclearize, the United States needs to provide a road map that multiple key actors in North Korea can agree to, first and foremost Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Sadly, there is no guarantee that Kim Jong-un would willingly give up the nuclear weapons that his father and grandfather passed down to him. Unless there is a new political faction or figure takeover in the North who can compromise with Washington to work together to achieve denuclearization and normalization negotiations. Without building mutual trust, it will take a long time to dismantle the North’s nuclear capabilities. It is time to be realistic in applying a pragmatic diplomatic approach towards North Korea by aiming for objectives that can lead to possible agreements. Before any negotiations with the North, it is essential to build trust by testing each side’s intentions. Cultural diplomacy can build cross-cultural collaboration and mutual trust through cultural exchange programs, which could improve communication at the lower-level bureaucratic sector to solve the dysfunctional relationship between the two countries.
For example, in 1995, President Bill Clinton and President Lê Đức Anh declared diplomatic reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam. The Vietnamese authorities agreed to establish a Vietnam-U.S. partnership in culture, education, and science. Both countries set up several bilateral exchange programs including music concerts, film festivals, and sports matches, which were operated by NGO representatives, businesspeople, scholars, and lower-level foreign affairs officials. Those kinds of international exchange programs are a historically proven foreign policy strategy to normalize ties with former adversaries.
Historically, geopolitical alliances and enmities are not built to last forever. The Americans recognized the influence of the Vietnamese resistance against the spread of Chinese communism in Southeast Asia in the 1970s. The U.S. government’s recognition of this fact awakened a reconciliation with the Vietnamese after the war in the 1960s and early 1970s. Through bilateral trade and military assistance, the two countries allied to face the geopolitical threat of China in Southeast Asia. The partnership has become fruitful in diverse areas such as finance, security, science, education, politics, and culture. For example, in the 1980s, Vietnam had a tough time because Vietnam’s socialized economic policies failed miserably. The leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) worried about rising internal conflicts and disputes against the party. Thus, they asked for economic assistance from the United States, and the USAID program that launched in Vietnam in 1989 has supported Vietnam’s reform of over 180 commercial laws and regulations. The USAID assistance has contributed to Vietnam’s rapid economic development and Vietnam's competitiveness ranking rose to 68th in 2018.
According to the Indo-Pacific Strategy report, Vietnam is one of the vital allies for the United States to establish a rule-based order, peace, and cooperative trade partnership to build regional stability in the Indo-Pacific. Vietnam and the ASEAN countries agreed with the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy agenda to form a multinational security alliance. Under those collective visions and national interests, the Indo-pacific alliances have expanded their joint partnerships in various sectors. In particular, the member states of the Indo Pacific alliance have been expanding security and defense networking. American, Vietnamese, and other ASEAN member nations’ navies held the first joint maritime exercises in the South China Sea in 2019 to counterbalance China’s military threat. In addition, the United States asked the Indo-Pacific members to provide and improve not only political, defense, and diplomatic relations but also humanitarian assistance and protection and promotion of human rights as a shared vision. The United States has pressed Vietnam persistently to hold annual dialogues on labor and human rights to improve these issues in Vietnam.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of State hosted the 22nd session of the U.S.-Vietnam human rights dialogue. Both sides agreed to make progress on legal reform, the rule of law, freedom of expression, religious freedom, and labor rights. Sadly, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) has not shown huge improvements, and the CPV still maintains its monopoly on political power and allows no challenge to its leadership. However, economic liberalization brought information technology into Vietnamese society. Despite the Vietnamese government’s online censorship and regulations, social media has triggered the growth of a democracy movement in Vietnam, and the cyber world created the space for civic engagement to widen extensively. As remote a possibility as that might be, if North Korea could normalize its relationship with the United States like Vietnam did, then North Korea might perhaps slowly permeate democratic values into society through digital culture and other cultural interactions created through capital markets.
The current U.S. administration can also learn from Nixon's “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” existed as a means of building collaboration with China. Nixon's initiative created a channel through which the United States and China could engage in exchange programs to re-establish diplomatic relations. During the Nixon administration, China and the Soviet Union had disputes over borders, de-Stalinization, and diplomatic concerns about the United States. The United States saw that Chinese-American rapprochement could effectively crack the shared belief among Chinese and Russian communists. Nixon scheduled a table tennis competition between the United States and China to create a communication channel to strengthen ties. The interaction between President Nixon and Chairman Mao resurrected their foreign relations and weakened the diplomatic relations between China and the Soviet Union. Based on this case, the United States can apply a cultural diplomacy strategy similar to that of
“Ping-Pong Diplomacy” to revitalize U.S.-North Korea diplomatic relations and debilitate Sino-North Korean relations.
Current Chinese Instability is an Opportunity
China tallied a GDP growth of 6.5% in December 2018, the weakest annual growth rate in the past 28 years. China repeatedly demonstrates that its economy is beginning to weaken. Inner political turmoil continues to harm China’s reputation among the international community, and the country has failed to properly address protests in Hong Kong as well as the coronavirus pandemic. The growing political and economic instability that has gained dominance in China's affairs might further deteriorate North Korea’s dependence on China as the Chinese leadership is preoccupied with inner turmoil and crisis.
The inconsistency in the Chinese government's political and socio-economic affairs provides an avenue for the United States to initiate a new relationship with the North Koreans, provided they bring appealing diplomatic suggestions to the table. For example, both sides can prepare a competitive event like Nixon and Mao’s ping-pong tournament to emanate a new signal of peace between the two nations. The establishment of cultural diplomacy between North Korea and the United States will be beneficial to both countries, especially since students from each state can learn the culture and practices of the other through exchange programs. The knowledge of each other's cultures can positively influence the acceptance of each other's political and economic ideologies.
The United States can offer North Korean citizens a new perspective of the outside world and foreign cultures. Until the Chinese overcome their internal struggle and regain the North Korean ruling class' trust, the Americans have a chance of decoupling Sino-North Korean ties if they apply the principles of Nixon's “Ping-Pong Diplomacy’ as well as the cultural diplomacy strategy towards Vietnam.
To decouple China from North Korea, the United States needs to utilize cultural diplomacy to reshape its relationship with the North. As the United States and China are in a New Cold War era, Washington needs to find a strategy to weaken China’s regional influence in Northeast Asia. Weakening diplomatic relations between North Korea and China could lead to great progress on multiple fronts. North Korea has acted as a buffer state for China to prevent the influence of a liberal democracy and the United States’ troops in democratic South Korea and Japan. Showing a soft-power strategy to attract North Korea can be the right move for the United States to start a “new chapter” in U.S.-North Korea relations. There will be many challenges and obstacles that must be addressed to implement various cultural exchange programs and events with the North. Nevertheless, as “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” and cultural diplomacy in Vietnam proved, this tactic could foster a relationship between nations with fundamentally different values. If North Korea gradually adjusts to international norms, both North Koreans’ standards of living and the human rights conditions could slowly improve down the road.
Junsoung “Steve” Kim is a recent graduate student from Augusta University, where he received his Master of Public Administration.
 Tsutomu Nishioka, “China is Helping North Korea Dodge U.N. Sanctions, and This Has to Stop,” Japan-Forward, November 11, 2019,
 “United Nations Security Council Resolution 2365 (2017),” United Nations Security Council, September 11, 2017,
 Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power: Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).
 Michael Gordon, Jessica Donati, Chris Gordon, “U.S. Holds Out Promise of Economic Prosperity for North Korea,” WSJ, May 11, 2018,
 Franz-Stefan Gady, “War of the Dragons: Why North Korea Does Not Trust China,” The Diplomat, September 29, 2017,
 Hong Sukhoon, “What Does North Korea Want from China? Understanding Pyongyang’s Policy Priorities toward Beijing,” The Korean Journal of International Studies, June 2014, DOI: 10.14731/kjis.2014.06.12.1.277.
 Thomas Byrne, “North Korea Responding to Financial Dearth,” WSJ, June 29, 2020,
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 “USAID: Country Development Cooperation Strategy for Vietnam 2014 – 2019,” U.S. Agency for International Development in Vietnam,
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 “2018 U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue,” U.S. Department of State,
 An Duc Nguyen, “Citizen Journalism in Vietnam: Technologies, democracy and the nation-state in a globalized news environment,” Department of Film, Media and Journalism, The University of Stirling, Scotland, UK,
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 Cynthia P. Schneider, “Culture Communicates: US Diplomacy That Works,” The New Public Diplomacy, p. 14.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleague Katty Chi. A native of Chile and graduate of the London School of Economics, Katty became a North Korean human rights defender in her early 20s. Katty was chief of international affairs with the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in Seoul from 2010 to 2014 and worked with the Seoul Office of Liberty in North Korea (LinK) from 2019 to 2020. A remarkable member of our small North Korean human rights community, Katty brought inspiration and good humor to all. Katty passed away in Seoul this past May, at the young age of 32. She is survived by her parents and brother living in Chile. With the YPWP series, we endeavor to honor Katty’s life and work.