FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Engaging North Korea

by

U.S. relations with North Korea have been pushed into the background by events in the Middle East. But the so-called “North Korea nuclear issue”—“so-called” because the larger issue, which involves the interests of several countries, is security and strategic stability on the Korean peninsula—remains unresolved and potentially dangerous.

I and many other specialists have urged the U.S. and other governments to genuinely engage North Korea. But engagement doesn’t just mean contact or involvement; it means a process that includes reaching out to an adversary in efforts to catalyze new directions for policies on all sides. Genuine, effective engagement should: Create a political environment conducive to policy change, focus on joint actions that will move the parties from destructive conflict to collaborative transformation, involve incentives and mutual rewards in security and peace, and be undertaken in a spirit of mutual respect. Only genuine engagement with North Korea holds out hope of settling the nuclear issue and easing tensions that could again engulf the Korean peninsula in war.

In April 2014, David Sanger reported in the New York Times that President Obama’s North Korea specialists feel “stuck” on where to go next with North Korea, having explored every option. However, what the Obama administration has offered during its six years in office is not engagement but sticks and carrots based on North Korean concessions: If North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, the United States will then have dialogue with its leadership.  But engaging North Korea should not be exclusively about North Korean denuclearization. It should above all be about enhancing security for parties with interests in the Korean peninsula, such that nuclear weapons become irrelevant for strategic or political purposes.

There are many strategic reasons why the U.S. should initiate win-win engagement with North Korea, but here are just three.

First, every time North Korean leaders feel threatened or ignored, they undertake a weapons test or other provocative action, such as the July 2014 threat of nuclear attack on the White House, provoked by U.S.-ROK (South Korea) military exercises.  Those exercises may seem like standard procedures to us, but to the North Koreans, they are a reminder of their vulnerability. In November 2002, Kim Jong-il sent a written personal message to President George W. Bush that said: “If the United States recognizes our sovereignty and assures nonaggression, it is our view that we should be able to find a way to resolve the nuclear issue in compliance with the demands of a new century. … If the United States makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly.” That position has been restated a number of times since, and nonaggression assurances are best made through dialogue.

Second, by abandoning engagement, the U.S. strengthens the hand of those in North Korea’s leadership who doubt the usefulness of negotiations, and prevents opportunities for dialogue with leaders who want to reduce tensions and gain concessions. According to Charles Pritchard, in an October 2003 Brookings editorial, Kim Jong-il told Madeleine Albright in October 2000 that, with U.S. security assurances,  “he would be able to convince his military that the United States was no longer a threat and then be in a position to refocus his country’s resources.” There is no reason to think Kim Jong-un does not possess comparable authority and similar goals.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, engagement increases opportunities for direct contact with the North Korean people. We have many examples of how appreciative Korean people have been when they receive meaningful help. Focusing on young people, as the Pyongyang Project does, may provide a framework of support for the critical projects that NGOs carry out and potential transformations within the country.

North Korea is just as tired of talk for talk’s sake as the United States is. It too won’t “buy the same horse twice.” Fruitful negotiations can proceed only if Pyongyang sees engagement as strengthening regime and state survival.  North Korea would most likely be interested in proposals that:

– Provide some assurance against U.S.-designed regime change.

– Enhance North Korea’s legitimacy as an independent socialist state.

– Provide international guarantees of North Korea’s security and eventually end sanctions.

– Pave the way for long-term development assistance, increased trade and investment, and short-term food and fuel aid, thus also reducing dependence on China.

– Undermine arguments in South Korea and Japan for keeping open the nuclear-weapon option.

The United States and other nations should present a package to North Korea that, in return for verifiable steps to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, provides the North with security assurances, a proposal for ending the Korean War and signing a nonaggression pact with big-power guarantees (with China and Russia on board), and meaningful economic assistance from both NGOs and governments.

We have to accept the fact that the Kim regime is not going to just go away. Washington expectations that the regime will either self-destruct or wither away under outside pressure are mostly wishful thinking; by every indication Kim Jong-un remains firmly in command. If the U.S. and its allies continue to assume imminent regime change and a disengaged, zero-sum approach, they will embolden the most hawkish of North Korean leadership, providing them with “evidence” that more nukes provide the only real security against an untrustworthy America.

To be sure, engagement of the North does not guarantee its good behavior or friction-free interaction. But we should seriously explore what North Korean officials have long insisted: that if the United States abandons its “hostile policy,” the nuclear issue and much else can be resolved. We should test that view, one step—and one incentive—at a time.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly, and blogs at In the Human Interest.

 

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
Victor Grossman
Horror News, This Time From Munich
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
Nicholas Buccola
What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?
Aidan O'Brien
Thank Allah for Western Democracy, Despondency and Defeat
Joseph Natoli
The Politics of Crazy and Stupid
Sher Ali Khan
Empirocracy
Nauman Sadiq
A House Divided: Turkey’s Failed Coup Plot
Franklin Lamb
A Roadmap for Lebanon to Grant Civil Rights for Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
Colin Todhunter
Power and the Bomb: Conducting International Relations with the Threat of Mass Murder
Michael Barker
UK Labour’s Rightwing Select Corporate Lobbyist to Oppose Jeremy Corbyn
Graham Peebles
Brexit, Trump and Lots of Anger
Anhvinh Doanvo
Civilian Deaths, Iraq, Syria, ISIS and Drones
Christopher Brauchli
Kansas and the Phantom Voters
Peter Lee
Gavin Long’s Manifesto and the Politics of “Terrorism”
Missy Comley Beattie
An Alarmingly Ignorant Fuck
Robert Koehler
Volatile America
Adam Vogal
Why Black Lives Matter To Me
Raouf Halaby
It Is Not Plagiarism, Y’all
Rivera Sun
Nonviolent History: South Africa’s Port Elizabeth Boycott
Rev. Jeff Hood
Deliver Us From Babel
Frances Madeson
Juvenile Life Without Parole, Captured in ‘Natural Life’
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail