How to Play North Korea Long Game (Page 2 of 2)

But what about engagement and dialogue as instruments for encouraging responsible North Korean behaviour and minimizing the risks of future provocations? Could this work?

The assumption here is that if we are in dialogue, North Korea will refrain from provocative behaviour.  Starting from Churchill’s premise that talk is better than conflict, it isn’t clear that dialogue with North Korea has constrained Pyongyang’s behaviour.  The August 1998 Taepodong test came in the middle of negotiations on a missile moratorium. The 2006 nuclear and missile tests came a year after Pyongyang signed the September 2005 Joint Statement committing the North to denuclearization.  And the 2009 test came after the Obama administration had announced it was prepared to extend an open hand to states like North Korea.

As for Cheonan and Yeonpyeong, the incidents appear to be motivated by internal North Korean political dynamics – payback in the case of the Cheonan sinking, and succession politics in the case of the island attack.  Future provocations should therefore be expected, whether we have dialogue or not, because the regime uses such actions to sustain a level of external crisis and rally public support. Succession, accompanied by a generational shift in the power structure, is a particularly sensitive time, as will be the death of Kim Jong-il.

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As for curing North Korea of its security paranoia, Pyongyang’s answer since the beginning of the Obama administration has been to prescribe two major bromides: that the United States recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and that Washington deal with the ‘root cause’ of the nuclear problem – its hostility toward North Korea – and eliminate that malevolence by concluding a peace treaty as a prerequisite for denuclearization.  

This was reiterated by North Korean news agency KNCA as Kim Kye Gwan was on his way to New York. In addressing mutual security concerns, we are on clearly divergent paths. The North Korean approach is a singular one, dismissing decades of mutual mistrust, suspicion, and enmity, and focusing on the magic bullet of a peace treaty with the United States.  Concluding a peace treaty would, for Pyongyang, usher in peace regime nirvana on the Peninsula, which would assuage North Korea’s security concerns by obviating the need for a US-South Korea alliance or a US presence on the Peninsula and, in the process, marginalize South Korea.

There is another path – a step-by-step process or to-do list that ends in, rather than begins with, a peace regime. This would start with North Korea’s denuclearization – it’s difficult to conceive of a peace regime with a nuclear armed North Korea. It would also involve implementing the historic 1992 North-South Basic Agreement; replacing the Armistice with either a political agreement or peace treaty to which South Korea would be a signatory. This would normalize relations on the Peninsula and end North Korea’s longstanding efforts to delegitimize South Korea.

This is a process that aims at building a peace regime from the bottom-up.  The North Korean approach, in contrast, is the diplomatic equivalent of attempting to build a house from the roof down – it simply lacks a foundation. The United States shouldn’t hesitate to explore openings with Pyongyang, but they should be well coordinated with Seoul and Tokyo. Moreover, we should keep expectations modest – health, education, people-to-people exchanges and confidence building measures provide low-profile entry points.  Stanford University’s medical school, for example, is engaged with Chinese and North Korean counterparts in a dialogue on tuberculosis management – a HEW channel could be explored with North Korean health officials.

Meanwhile, a handful of North Korean students are now studying in the United States; the offer should be made to increase that number. (Where better to learn market economics than at the Becker-Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago?) 

As for confidence building, the confidence building measures outlined in the Basic Agreement would go a long way toward creating a real peace regime on the Peninsula. And, even less controversial, cultural and sport exchanges can be encouraged.  The Los Angeles Lakers in Pyongyang?  Why Not?  Kim Jong-un is reported to be a basketball fan.  How about Ping-Pong diplomacy with a bigger ball?

Yet again, our expectations should be modest.  Expecting ‘new and improved, active and comprehensive engagement’ will now do the trick represents, like third and fourth marriages, a triumph of hope over experience. At the macro-level, North Korea has evidenced little interest in buying what we’ve been selling – economic opening, reform and prosperity in exchange for its nuclear weapons. But modest initiatives can at least begin to suggest a different future to the next generation of North Korean leadership.


James J. Przystup is a Senior Fellow at  the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared at CSIS Pacnet.
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