Tensions remain high on the Korean Peninsula as South Korean President Park Geun-hye prepares to visit Washington. How to handle the North Korean regime will be at the top of the trip’s agenda.

In a Q&A, James L. Schoff analyzes Pyongyang’s aggressive behavior and suggests steps to reduce tensions and limit risks. Schoff says countries in the region should not allow territorial disputes and historical issues to get in the way of solving the shared problem of North Korea and its nuclear program.

What is behind the North Korean regime’s aggressive behavior?

It seems pretty clear that North Korea has decided to unreservedly pursue its nuclear and missile programs. There was some hope when Kim Jong Un, the son of the former North Korean leader, took over late last year that he might steer away from those programs and invest more in economic reform in the country. But I think for domestic political reasons he has chosen to side with the military.

And this pursuit of the nuclear program is inviting international pressure in the form of sanctions. The recent threats and actions by North Korea is a way of pushing back against the sanctions and pressure. He is trying to create some political space for the country.

How much danger do North Korea’s provocations pose to the region?

The mere fact of moving missiles around is not necessarily dangerous, but obviously this is a sign of pushing back against international sanctions. If the pressure continues, as we expect it will, North Korea may try to engage in a more serious provocation.

South Korea has vowed that it will respond accordingly, so the near-term danger is that there is some kind of miscalculation and escalation of tension in the region. Overall, I am not too worried about that.

The longer-term problem is that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs continue to improve and go ahead unrestrained. This either means that North Korea can become more emboldened in the future—as it feels it has more protection with its nuclear and missile programs—or, if North Korea ends up facing collapse, it could enter a final use-it-or-lose-it scenario. This is the main worry of the international community.

How is South Korea responding to the North’s threats?

South Korea is relatively accustomed to these kinds of threats so it is not overreacting. It is being prudent in terms of bolstering its deterrence, working closely with the United States, and conducting military exercises to maintain readiness.

At the same time, President Park has been reaching out and offering dialogue to North Korea, especially on the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which North Korea has cut off, sent all of its workers back home, and won’t allow South Korean businessmen to come up to the park. This has been an unprecedented period of time that the jointly operated industrial park has been closed, so Park is trying to engage North Korea on reopening that complex.

How is the United States responding?

The United States is staying very strong and close with its allies—with South Korea and with Japan—and sending messages of deterrence to North Korea that it is prepared to respond to any kind of military provocation.

At the same time, the United States is trying to encourage China to apply more pressure on North Korea to cease these kinds of provocations and threats and to come back to an international negotiation on denuclearization. The United States is also offering some degree of bilateral dialogue or expressing a willingness to talk to North Korea if the topic of that discussion is denuclearization.

What kind of dialogue is possible with North Korea at this time?

Lately there has been a lot of discussion about dialogue with North Korea, and this dialogue could take many forms. The traditional option has been the Six-Party Talks, where the region works together and talks about the denuclearization of North Korea, but Pyongyang has clearly pushed this off the table. So there is really nothing to talk about in the area of denuclearization with North Korea.

What else can the countries talk about to reduce tension? South Korea could have discussions with North Korea on the Kaesong Industrial Complex or other kinds of economic engagement measures. The United States and South Korea could try to approach North Korea to talk about the armistice that North Korea has disavowed. That would be a mechanism to begin to update the armistice from the Korean War in 1953 and to figure out ways to deescalate tension in the region.

How are China and the rest of the region reacting?

China is beginning to show signs of losing patience with its long-time ally North Korea, and the United States is trying to convince it to play a stronger role by applying pressure and limiting economic engagement with North Korea. China mostly wants stability on the peninsula, so its response will be measured.

But the key is to bring together the countries of the region, including Japan, South Korea, and China, to keep up a unity of pressure on North Korea and convince it to steer away from the nuclear program.

The problem is recent diplomatic tensions between Japan and China over territorial issues or Japan and South Korea over historical issues (legacies of Japan’s occupation) are undermining that unity and the ability for the different countries to come together in dialogue. Leaders need to overcome these diplomatic challenges to keep the eye on the ball—North Korea and its nuclear program. 

What is expected from the upcoming meeting between Presidents Obama and Park?

This is going to be a very important meeting between Obama and Park—it is their first meeting. Obama had a good relationship with Park’s predecessor and he is looking to continue that momentum with her administration. She will also give a presentation to a joint session of Congress and there will be a lot of discussion about how to deal with North Korea.

I think an important part of this is going to be how to deal with regional diplomacy in East Asia given some of the historical tensions with Japan and the territorial disputes. Park will put forward her vision for how to deal with this dynamic.

One issue that was expected to be a very sensitive issue for the presidents to address is a nuclear energy cooperation agreement that needed to be renewed. It was going to potentially allow South Korea to reprocess spent fuel and actually enrich uranium, but the United States was reluctant to acquiesce.

The two sides have managed to postpone that decision for two years—the agreement was extended. This gives the presidents a little bit of breathing space. They do not have to make a very sensitive political decision right off the bat and they will begin to scope out how they are going to deal with the situation going forward.