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West must try a 'third way' to change North Korea

South Korea’s carrots and America's sticks have both failed to tame North Korea. There is another way. With a new regime and small, but positive changes stirring in North Korea, the international community should seize the chance and begin cultural exchanges with the North.

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The leadership style in Pyongyang has changed too. One may be surprised to notice that an official portrait of Kim Jong-un released by the North Korean government shows the young leader wearing a Western-style suit and tie. Mr. Kim is also often depicted in photos with thrilled and emotional North Korean citizens who hug and embrace him. Such intimate physical contact between the supreme leader and ordinary citizens was very rare in the past.

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And on a smaller, but no less significant note: Previously, visitors to North Korea were not allowed to take photos or use cell phones. Recently such restrictions have been eased in Pyongyang. The signs of encouraging changes in North Korea are unmistakable. The international community should heed them and act.

The possession of nuclear weapons alone does not make North Korea more dangerous. If North Korea’s security is guaranteed, it will be unlikely to use those weapons. For the new diplomatic approach to succeed, it is essential that the US and China cooperate and provide joint security for North Korea. In exchange for the security assistance, the two powers could pressure North Korea to carry out immediate and meaningful economic reforms.

China’s cooperation in this new initiative is vital, but it is also unrealistic to place all the burdens for changing North Korean behaviors on China. China’s help to prop up the Kim regime in the past cannot be equated with supporting North Korea’s repulsive behaviors. In fact, the voice is growing louder inside China to abandon and even punish the North Korean regime, which was recently involved in the kidnapping of 28 Chinese fishermen.

Kim Jong-un is very young, and the future of North Korea under his leadership is uncertain. The international community should grab the inherent opportunity to influence shifts in Pyongyang. A new policy of comprehensive contact together with security assurance has a better chance than sanctions to prod North Korea to open up and join the international community. With the failure of previous policies and emergence of positive, albeit small, changes within North Korea, the “third way” approach is at least worth trying.

Zhiqun Zhu is a professor of international relations and political science at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn. He is currently a visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.


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