Let North Korea Save Face

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Let North Korea Save Face

Kim Jong-il’s regime seems to respond better to the carrot than the stick. The United States and others could try walking in Kim’s shoes as they look to reduce tensions.

U.S. and South Korean officials looking for a way out of the many years of stalemate and tension on the Korean Peninsula might do well to look at the situation from North Korea’s perspective. If they are able to do so, they may be able to find new ways to reduce tensions and bring about a less tense security situation. History suggests a possible path to doing so.

When standing in Kim Jong-il’s shoes, a vastly different security landscape – one riddled with problems – becomes evident. Certainly, Kim doesn’t see himself as an evil rouge state leader, but rather as the legitimate head of North Korea, striving for regime survival in the best interests of the nation and against all the odds.

From his and his generals’ standpoint, to adopt a placid policy stance and refrain from action against perceived antagonism, as in the case of the Yeonpyeong shelling incident last year, where South Korea allegedly fired into disputed North Korean waters, would be to hasten the regime’s demise by appearing weak. A face saving solution must therefore be offered to Pyongyang, one that could result in a peaceful resolution of the current standoff.

Certainly, there are examples in the past where a flexible approach to North Korea, one that allowed it to save face, has paid off. Following the country’s first nuclear test, in 2006, it was decided during the Six Party denuclearization talks in February 2007 that Pyongyang would accept fuel aid, while the U.S. moved towards normalized relations in exchange for the disablement of the former’s nuclear reactor and the re-admission of previously expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.

Progress seemed to come quickly. The United States arranged the release in June 2007 of nearly $25 million of frozen North Korean money. In return, Pyongyang shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor after receiving 6,200 tons of South Korean fuel aid. Following this, a 7,500 ton shipment of fuel was sent from South Korea after the IAEA confirmed the shutdown of the reactor on July 16, 2007.

Pyongyang then reciprocated by surrendering approximately 18,000 documents concerning its nuclear program to the U.S. State Department. In May 2008, it submitted a declaration about its nuclear capabilities to the chairman of the Six Party talks, and in June it demolished a cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. In response, the United States’ quid pro quo was the removal in October of North Korea from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

Sadly, this virtuous cycle of more than two years came to an end after Pyongyang was condemned by the UN Security Council following the test of a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile on April 5, 2009.

One thing of note, though, is the absence of South Korea-North Korea conflict or military exchanges during this 2007 -2009 period, which stands in stark contrast to the 2009 – 2011 period in which the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents took place.

Past evidence suggests Kim and his advisors respond better to carrots than sticks. North Korea’s desire for external recognition, concrete aid and security guarantees were all either explicitly or implicitly given to North Korea in some form or other in the past.  Pyongyang then reciprocated with significant progress in denuclearization and the toning down of its rhetoric. A clear pattern therefore emerges that could form the basis of future progress in solving the stalemate on the Korean Peninsula.

With all this in mind, it might be reasonable to conclude that the only sensible path forward in dealing with North Korea would be to be open to what Pyongyang really wants in negotiations, be firm in what is expected of the North Koreans, and seek China’s help as North Korea’s only real ally to exert firm but subtle pressure in order to improve the country’s receptiveness to any new offers that are placed on the table.     

Nah Liang Tuang is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.