North Korea: The Problem with Reconciliation Via Engagement
Image Credit: REUTERS/KCNA

North Korea: The Problem with Reconciliation Via Engagement


Despite Paola Subacchi’s well-reasoned essay in favor of using trade and commerce to foster peace and mutual understanding with North Korea, the last two decades should make clear that economic and social engagement by the governments of South Korea, the United States, or other countries has never achieved enduring improvements in North Korea’s foreign or domestic policies.

Multilateral Engagement

The Six-Party Talks among China, Japan, Russia, North and South Korea and the United States have been the main mechanism for multilateral engagement with North Korea. Since they began in August 2003, their fundamental objective has been to end the nuclear weapons program of the DPRK in return for various economic, diplomatic and other incentives. The six rounds of talks have experienced generally poor results. Although the parties have signed several interim agreements, they either were never implemented or were later unraveled. The basic principle governing the negotiations within the Six-Party framework has been that of “commitment for commitment, action for action.” This approach expected that the other parties would provide the DPRK with discrete rewards for each concrete step Pyongyang took towards denuclearization. Although this process of reciprocal concessions was supposed to yield mutually reinforcing improvements, it frequently has worked in the reverse. When the DPRK or its negotiating parties took some objectionable action, the others would retaliate, leading to a series of “tit-for-tat” exchanges that soon undid earlier progress.

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Kim Jong-un has continued with the established pattern of behavior and has sought to extract economic and humanitarian concessions from the other Six Party dialogue participants in return for symbolic and reversible concessions to cement the power transition within the Kim family dynasty. At present, the North Korean regime is bargaining hard for any return to the Six-Party Talks. The talks have remained suspended following an upsurge of tensions in April 2009, when the UN Security Council imposed additional sanctions on the DPRK after North Korea launched a ballistic missile under the guise of testing space rockets. Pyongyang responded defiantly by withdrawing from the talks and then detonating another nuclear weapon, the second following its initial test in October 2006, in contravention of previous UN resolutions. The DPRK has twice before (2004-05 and 2005-06) boycotted the talks for a year until the other parties, especially Beijing and Washington, made sufficient concessions to entice Pyongyang to rejoin them. Meanwhile, the DPRK continues to develop its nuclear weapons capacity as well as its means of delivering a nuclear warhead on a long-range ballistic missile.

ROK-DPRK Bilateral Engagement

During the Cold War, South Korean officials protested strenuously whenever it appeared that the United States or other Western governments were interested in diplomatically engaging North Korea. ROK-DPRK ties expanded following the February 1998 inauguration of President Kim Dae-jung. His “Sunshine Policy” (officially known as “the Policy of Reconciliation and Cooperation towards North Korea”) toward the DPRK tried to improve relations with the North Korean government through negotiations and diplomatic, economic and other inducements to coax the regime out of its self-destructive isolation and to reassure the DPRK leadership about its security. These enticements include encouraging other countries to engage with North Korea, providing increased humanitarian and economic assistance, postponing negotiations on the most difficult issues dividing the two countries, and helping reassure the North Korean regime about its security concerns in the hope that a more benign security environment will encourage the DPRK leadership to pursue political and economic reforms.

Roh Moo-hyun largely continued these engagement policies during his 2003-2008 presidency under the renamed “Peace and Prosperity Policy.” Coming into office at the time of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil speech, Roh believed that North Korea had developed nuclear weapons in response to U.S. threats and to induce Washington to engage in a direct dialogue with Pyongyang. At times, he feared that rash U.S. actions would precipitate a war on the peninsula, which would prove disastrous for South Korea no matter what its outcome. The Roh administration also wanted to promote DPRK economic reform while integrating the country into East Asian economic processes, hoping that such developments could help stabilize North Korea in the short-term while providing incentives and leverage for moderating its foreign policy over the long run. The Roh approach implicitly assumed that the North Korean government would not soon collapse and that the DPRK was prepared to alter policies that most threaten South Koreans.

Although cross-border trade and other civil society exchanges between Koreans increased under the Sunshine policies, Seoul’s success in improving relations with Pyongyang’s Communist allies did not result in substantially better ROK relations with Pyongyang. In addition, the policy negatively affected the traditional relationship between South Korea and the United States.

Conservative Lee Myung-bak, who became president in 2008, scaled back the Sunshine concessions to the DPRK and focused on restoring good ROK-U.S. ties. Even during the first months of the leadership transition in Pyongyang, the Lee government has had modest expectations regarding North Korea’s near-term evolution. It conditioned offering the DPRK new aid on an end to Pyongyang’s provocations and placed renewed emphasis on the goal of eventual Korean reunification under Seoul’s leadership. The North Korean government condemned Lee’s standoffish approach and avoided engaging extensively with his administration.

As expected, North Korea tested Park Geun-hye during her first few months in office with various provocations – mostly rhetorical threats. The most recent period of tensions flared up after the North’s long-range rocket launch in December 2012 and underground nuclear test in February 2013. Pyongyang’s militant rhetoric intensified in March after the U.N. Security Council tightened sanctions on North Korea following the tests and after the annual U.S.-South Korean military drills in South Korea known as Foal Eagle was conducted. Park has expressed a greater willingness than her predecessor to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea without preconditions, but the DPRK has until recently been cutting ties with the South.

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