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Diplomacy is Needed to Manage an Emboldened North Korea

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With North Korea’s growing capabilities set against the backdrop of intensifying great power tensions and stagnant nuclear talks, the regime’s aggressive actions have markedly intensified in recent years. In this context, diplomacy is of paramount importance not only to curb escalation risks on the Korean Peninsula but also to avert potentially closer alignment between North Korea, Russia, and China as well as to halt and ultimately rollback North Korea’s nuclear and missile advancements.

North Korea's Growing Nuclear and Missile Programs

Since nuclear talks collapsed between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea has increased its missile launches while threatening to conduct its seventh nuclear test.

In July 2023, North Korea test-fired its new solid-fueled Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). From the United States’ perspective, the Hwasong-18 ICBM is a direct threat to its security as its range is believed to extend to the U.S. mainland. Unlike the liquid-fueled Hwasong-17 ICBM, the new solid-fueled Hwasong-18 requires shorter preparation time, making its detection prior to launch more challenging. Over the course of this year, North Korea has also tested various other ballistic missile technologies including the Hwasong-17 ICBM, Hwasong-15 ICBM, a new underwater attack weapon system, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). These actions have heightened concerns in the U.S. and South Korea regarding the continuous buildup of North Korea’s missile capabilities.

In military parades held in February and July of this year, North Korea showed off its advancements in nuclear missile technology by displaying various ballistic missile systems. Given the progression of the North’s capabilities since its first nuclear test in 2006, Pyongyang has consistently invested its scarce resources into nuclear and missile development, despite facing crippling economic sanctions from both the U.S. and the United Nations.

North Korea's Support of Russian Aggression Against Ukraine

In November 2022, the U.S. suggested that North Korea was shipping munitions such as artillery shells to Russia indirectly via the Middle East and North Africa. While North Korea has publicly denied these claims, the recent visit of Russian Defense Minister Shoigu to Pyongyang for the military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the 1950-53 Korean War Armistice lends weight to the allegations and demonstrates Kim’s apparent willingness to support Russia with armaments.

Should the Ukraine War prolong, Russia could potentially seek to acquire ballistic missiles from North Korea. In exchange, North Korea may seek access to advanced technologies and weapon systems that it currently does not possess, as well as significant financial compensation. These potential transactions could serve as a catalyst for deepening bilateral ties between the two nations in the future.

China and Russia's Support for North Korea on the International Stage

In May, China and Russia bolstered North Korea’s stance by obstructing further sanctions through the U.N. Security Council. Both Beijing and Moscow have supported Pyongyang’s assertions that its continued missile launches are in self-defense, while concurrently denouncing the growing influence of the U.S. in the region. This suggests a willingness on their part to engage in a new Cold War on the Korean Peninsula, siding with North Korea against the U.S. if deemed necessary.

However, it is unlikely that China and Russia will take explicit steps towards formal alliances with North Korea in the near future.

Although China pursues alternating approaches to revise the current rules-based international order, it is still risky for Beijing to enter mutual defence agreements with Pyongyang as it may signal that what they want to be is the spearhead of rogue states, not the leader of the international community. On the other hand, Russia (given its isolation since invasion of Ukraine) is perhaps less worried about this issue but it is more concerned about its plans in eastern Europe and its survival, meaning upgrading the character of bilateral relations with North Korea is not Moscow’s priority at this time.

With the low possibility of Chinese or Russian alliances with North Korea on the horizon, Pyongyang also has a deep-rooted distrust of Beijing and Moscow that has been embedded in Pyongyang’s elites since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Chinese economic reform led by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. However, if China and Russia continue deepening support for North Korea, the growing risk of a new Cold War between the U.S. and its allies, and a loose bloc of China, Russia and North Korea will be entrenched on the Korean Peninsula.

The Imperative of Revived Diplomacy

In response to North Korea’s escalating belligerence, both the U.S. and South Korea have intensified their collaborative efforts to fortify deterrence. This has manifested in larger-scale joint military exercises and the establishment of mechanisms for coordination on nuclear deterrence. Yet, merely relying on deterrence won’t yield a fundamental shift in North Korea’s stance, nor will it curtail Kim’s burgeoning rapport with Putin and Xi. To address the North Korean threat, the United States must reevaluate its strategies and reinstate a pathway for diplomatic dialogue and negotiations.

In a recent Washington Post article, Frank Aum, a prominent expert on Northeast Asia at the United States Institute of Peace, underscored North Korea’s behavior in response to U.S. engagement in past nuclear discussions. He specifically noted that North Korea “conducted zero nuclear or ballistic missile tests in 2018 when bilateral summitry occurred.” This stands in stark contrast to the period from 2019 to 2023, which witnessed North Korea carrying out over 100 missile tests following the collapse of diplomatic negotiations.

Building on this theme of diplomatic possibilities, it is worth revisiting Kim Jong-un’s summit with then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in. During this meeting, Kim committed to ending the 1950-53 Korean War and to working towards denuclearization, envisioning a “nuclear-free Korean peninsula.” The succession of inter-Korean summits in 2018 played a pivotal role in influencing Trump’s historic decision to become the first sitting U.S. president to engage in direct negotiations with a North Korean leader. Yet, his unexpected departure from the Hanoi Summit in February 2019 reinforced Washington’s steadfast stance: North Korea must dismantle its entire nuclear arsenal in one sweeping action. This seemingly insurmountable strategy was summarized with the saying that “no deal is better than a bad deal.

In this broader diplomatic context, the role of China emerges as a critical factor that cannot be overlooked. Recognizing the significance of China’s influence on North Korea and its strategic interests in the region, it is imperative for the United States to actively seek China’s involvement as a party to any future talks with North Koreans. Although Beijing may have been overlooking the advances of North Korea’s missile and nuclear technologies, it needs to realize the broader implications of Pyongyang’s actions. North Korea’s continued nuclear development may further undermine the nonproliferation regime in the region. This, in turn, could prompt other countries in China’s neighborhood to consider developing their own nuclear capabilities, or deepen their reliance on U.S. extended deterrence.

Ultimately, the success of any diplomatic endeavor hinges on North Korea’s willingness to engage in a constructive negotiation process. Turning the lens back towards Pyongyang, North Korean leaders must come to terms with a stark reality: the sole avenue for obtaining meaningful economic relief and breaking free from its pariah status on the world stage is through engaging in diplomacy and reaching a negotiated agreement. Without such diplomacy, a breakthrough in U.S.-North Korea relations remains elusive, and Pyongyang’s isolation will only deepen.


To counter North Korea’s heightened aggression, a united front from the U.S. and its allies is crucial, advocating for Pyongyang’s return to the negotiating table without preconditions, and placing diplomacy at the forefront. Only through coordinated diplomatic efforts is it possible to deter further escalations and establish lasting peace in the region.

Written By:
Mitch Shin
Mitch Shin is a Young Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. Previously Mitch was Assistant Editor and Chief Correspondent for The Diplomat, covering foreign affairs and national security of the two Koreas. He was a non-resident research fellow at the Institute for Security & Development Policy, Stockholm Korea Center, and a non-resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum.
Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor