The colourful American basketball player Dennis Rodman had proved an unusual international emissary in 2013 when he visited North Korea on his own and took back the message to Washington that the pariah state’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un was ready for parley. The ball set rolling back then is still is very much in motion, although it hits roadblocks periodically.

The United States still holds a hostile view of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its belligerence, nuclear weapons and human rights abuses. But there is at least an openness to bringing the hermit state out of its reclusion. So when North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong paid a rare visit to Delhi this week, it was not surprising that India’s diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang was welcomed by the United States as a “positive development”.

Yong was in India for a three-day visit – the first by a North Korean foreign minister in at least 25 years – at the invitation of Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj. During the course of their talks, Yong sought more humanitarian assistance from India and reportedly asked Delhi to include Pyongyang in its Act East policy. India responded to the aid request positively, but raised concerns about the peace and stability in the Korean peninsula for the implementation of the Act East policy.

Sharing perspectives

An official from the US Army Pacific, or USARPAC, which commands the army in the Asia-Pacific region including North Korea, said India’s engagement with Pyongyang is a positive development and the US looks forward to learning from Delhi’s perspective.

The official, who requested anonymity since he was not authorised to speak with the media, said that besides India, other democratic countries like Mongolia have opened their door to North Korea for engagement. “We need to share their perspectives as it can help us [the US] to improve our own understanding and perhaps approach towards North Korea,” the official said. He added that New Delhi’s view will be particularly important since the US regards India as a regional leader working towards stability and security in the Asia-Pacific.

A team from the USARPAC, which is visiting India to enhance Indo-US military relations and widen regional security cooperation, revealed that the USARPAC has got feelers from China and Vietnam that North Korea wishes to normalise relations with the US.

At an interactive session at the Delhi-based Center for Land Warfare Studies – an autonomous think tank working on security and strategic issues – officials said the Commander of USARPAC, General Vincent K Brooks, was informed during his travels to China, Vietnam and South Korea in January that there was “some misreading on the US’s part with regards to North Korea and the state was looking for a way out of the predicament it found itself in”.

The Vietnam example

Hit by heavy economic and diplomatic sanctions, food shortages and natural disasters, North Korea has spiralled into a state of crisis in recent years. Partly for that reason Yong has been on a diplomatic offensive since his appointment as foreign minister in 2014. In this brief time he has visited Russia, Iran, Vietnam and Myanmar, and attended the UN general assembly in New York, all to thaw ties and break the country out of its diplomatic isolation and economic straits.

In their hope North Korean representatives are looking to Vietnam as a model. Despite their violent past, the relations between the US and Vietnam transformed, benefiting the tiny South East Asian nation greatly, lifting its economy from years of stagnation and alleviating poverty.

The former foes turned friends in 1995 when the US in a “painstaking process that required vision, hard work, and compromise” mended relations with Vietnam. As a result, Vietnam is now the 26th largest trading partner of the US, with two-way business volumes reaching $35 billion in 2014 – a 70% jump from the non-existent relations two decades earlier.

Pointing to Vietnam and Cuba as examples, the North Koreans are seeking a change in their interaction with the US. Given the diplomatic breakthroughs the Obama administration has achieved mending ties with Cuba and Iran, perhaps a handshake between Barack Obama (or the next US President) and Kim Jong-Un may not be an unimaginable idea.