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.
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.
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.
U.S. Engagement Efforts
The United States has not had significant economic or social levers to employ in its engagement efforts. U.S. trade with the DPRK is extremely limited and the United States does not have official diplomatic, consular or normalized trade relations (most favored nation) status with the country. The United States does have an abundance of food, and has provided copious amounts of food to the DPRK over the years, but the Pyongyang regime is readily willing to renounce that aid rather than accept conditions that could compromise its control over the North Korean people. The United States has one major asset that DPRK leaders have long sought – the power to recognize the legitimacy of the North Korean state, perhaps even one having nuclear weapons. But U.S. officials have resolutely rejected legitimizing the permanent division of the Korean Peninsula, especially under a despotic and belligerent regime.
During the presidency of Bill Clinton, U.S. engagement with North Korea focused on nuclear and other forms of energy. When IAEA inspectors found North Korea was concealing plutonium in 1993, a crisis erupted that almost led to a U.S. military strike against the DPRK. At the last minute, with the help of former President Jimmy Carter, the Clinton administration successfully reached an Agreed Framework in 1994 with Kim Jong-il. North Korea pledged to end its nuclear weapons program in return for two light water reactors (LWR) and heavy fuel oil (HFO) from the U.S. Under the Agreement, the United States provided more than $400 million in energy assistance through the newly created Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) from 1995 to 2002. Although the Agreed Framework did not nullify the DPRK’s ability to restart its nuclear program permanently, the engagement effort did slow down the development of the DPRK nuclear program for at least a few years. If the DPRK had been more receptive, the deal could also have laid the foundation for mutual trust and normalization of bilateral relations between Washington and Pyongyang. Unfortunately, the DPRK continued to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities through various covert programs.
The George W. Bush administration suspended bilateral U.S.-DPRK talks while it undertook a lengthy policy review to reassess U.S. policy towards North Korea. In addition to unease about the U.S. concessions made in the Agreed Framework, another worry was the evidence that the DPRK had launched a covert uranium enrichment program, which would give North Korea another, and technically superior, path toward developing nuclear weapons in addition to its suspended plutonium path. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the administration decided it had to challenge any North Korean nuclear program, since Washington could not trust Pyongyang not to sell its nuclear technologies and materials to terrorists and their state sponsors. Since North Korea had violated the terms of the Agreed Framework, the Bush administration subsequently threatened to halt the assistance that the DPRK received under the Agreed Framework. Rather than renounce its nuclear activities and comply with the agreement, or use the communication channels developed through various engagement efforts (which admittedly the Bush administration had reduced, and worsened with some extremely hostile rhetoric regarding North Korean leaders), the DPRK government responded to U.S. concerns by expelling the international inspectors from its Yongbyon nuclear site, becoming the first state to withdraw formally from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and resuming its plutonium operations. In conclusion, the U.S. engagement toward the DPRK through the Agreed Framework only produced a temporary delay in its illegal and provocative nuclear program.
More recently, the Obama administration launched major bilateral engagement initiatives in 2011 and 2012 when U.S. and DPRK negotiators discussed how to resume U.S. food aid to North Korea under appropriate safeguards in return for a freeze on the DPRK’s nuclear and missile activities. Following months of negotiations, in February 2012, Pyongyang and Washington inked what became known as the “Leap Day Agreement.” As understood in Washington, under its terms North Korea agreed to observe a moratorium on nuclear testing and permit international inspections of key parts of its nuclear program while the United States consented to provide North Korea with 240,000 metric tons of “nutritional assistance” under a properly supervised distribution mechanism and increased cultural and people exchanges between the two nations. Yet, soon after inking the deal, Pyongyang announced its decision to launch an “Earth observation satellite,” which the United States and other countries denounced for violating UN Security Council prohibitions against the DPRK testing any technologies that could be used for ballistic missiles. Despite remonstrations from the United States, China and other countries, Pyongyang went ahead with the test on April 13, 2012, making it impossible for Washington to trust that the DPRK would not divert food shipments to the military rather than deliver it to those most in need, namely children and pregnant women. Although the April launch failed, the DPRK succeeded in launching its long-range rocket in December. It then conducted a third nuclear test on February 12, 2013.
Chinese Engagement Initiatives
China has often made commercial ties its main means of engaging North Korea. North Korea receives about half its food and almost all its oil imports from China. At present, North Korea’s bilateral trade with China accounts for almost 90 percent of the former’s foreign trade. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans reside and often work in China. PRC enterprises have also made major investments in the DPRK; their importance has grown as South Korean investment in North Korea has stagnated due to political tensions between their two governments.
The PRC government has long sought to promote economic reform in North Korea in order to strengthen its regime, reduce aid demands on China, and refocus DPRK attention from foreign policy adventurism to domestic economic well-being. The Chinese government has been inviting DPRK leaders on “study tours” to prosperous regions of eastern China as well as site visits of successful PRC commercial enterprises. They also have sought to build the DPRK state capacity required to implement these reforms. For example, while deemphasizing food aid and other one-way transfers, PRC state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have helped the DPRK develop its natural resource and mining sectors by investing large sums of money, equipment, and other resources in North Korea as well as by engaging in the extensive training of local DPRK workers and managers.
Thus far, the Kim Jong-un regime has at most made a rhetorical commitment to economic reform. Pyongyang has continued its dual-track policy of building the economy while also enhancing its nuclear weapons program. With the rise of black markets and the increasing occurrences of free market activities, albeit still technically illegal, there has been a somewhat tacit approval of limited reforms. But, these so-called “reforms” are not centrally directed, but rather are the results of enterprising North Koreans, who out of necessity, are attempting to fill the gaps in the DPRK authorities’ abilities to deliver food and other basic necessities, such as electrical power.
Kim Jong-il’s refusal to embrace the kinds of comprehensive reforms advocated by China should come as no surprise, since it would threaten the survival of his totalitarian regime. For example, Kim Jung-un might be seen as casting doubt on the wisdom of his father’s and grandfather’s policies, which would weaken a major source of his legitimacy. If the economic reforms led North Koreans to acquire more information about the outside world, they would become more aware of the massive disparity in lifestyles between the two Koreas. For its part, while encouraging economic reforms in the DPRK, China has refrained from exploiting its economic ties or other connections to coerce North Korea into changing its policies. PRC policymakers fear that such a firm stance could threaten North Korea’s stability and reduce even further Beijing’s limited influence in Pyongyang. While PRC policymakers may have hoped to gain leverage over Pyongyang though this extensive economic engagement, China’s growing economic ties with the DPRK, as well as the PRC’s security and other interests in North Korea, give many influential Chinese a major stake in averting additional economic sanctions, not antagonizing the DPRK leadership to such an extent that North Korea retaliates against Chinese economic interests, and above all avoiding regime change in Pyongyang.
In conclusion, a range of actors have attempted to engage North Korea on a number of levels and with a variety of tools. All of these initiatives have failed to moderate the DPRK’s foreign policies or secure peace and unification on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive regimes. The authorities control everything, including access to food and information. DPRK leaders repeatedly raise foreigners’ hopes about the prospects for engagement and then shatter them with provocations. Whether this pattern will continue in the future is of course debatable, but the burden of proof lies with those who believe engagement will achieve superior results in the future. The problem is that regime change must occur first for engagement to work. Only a more liberal DPRK regime would respond more positively to foreign government outreach efforts. And it has been to everyone’s misfortune that the latest heir to the Kim Dynasty has wholeheartedly embraced the flawed policies of his father and grandfather, threatening world peace and further delaying Korea’s unification. Unfortunately, policies of containment, confrontation or isolation have not been successful in coaxing the DPRK to transform into a more normal state, let alone accept unification. North Korea is truly the land of lousy options for its foreign interlocutors.