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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.

By Zhiqun Zhu / June 12, 2012

The US envoy on North Korean human rights issues, Amb. Robert King, left, is greeted by Japan's Foreign Ministry Director General for Asian and Ocean Affairs, Shinsuke Sugiyama, in Tokyo June 8. Mr. King told media that reforms unfolding in Myanmar are a great example for North Korea to follow. Op-ed contributor Zhiqun Zhu says 'the international community should initiate a new strategy [on North Korea] with one primary objective: the peaceful evolution of the North Korean regime.'

Franck Robichon/AP



The international community has tried two dominant approaches to deal with North Korea in the past two decades: South Korea's generous incentives and America's punitive sanctions. So far, both have failed.

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Since its failed satellite launch in April 2012, North Korea has reportedly been preparing for a third nuclear test. The dire situation on the Korean Peninsula calls for an alternative and more effective approach by the international community. With a new regime and small, but positive changes stirring in North Korea, the international community should seize the chance to influence real changes in Pyongyang’s policies.

Ten years of engagement by South Korea (1998-2008) through the “Sunshine Policy” of President Kim Dae-jung and the “Peace and Prosperity” policy of his successor Roh Moo-hyun did not create a cooperative and peaceful North Korea. Instead, a frustrated South Korea and the world witnessed North Korea’s enhanced efforts to develop weapons, including two nuclear tests, one in 2006 and one in 2009.

North Korea also initiated major provocations by allegedly sinking the South Korean warship Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, killing a total of 50 South Koreans. For the South, enough is enough. President Lee Myung-bak came to office in 2008 and scrapped the soft approach toward the North. He has been criticized for being too hawkish on North Korea, but his policy is based on a realistic assessment of the failed engagement approach.

On the other hand, sanctions and punishment have dominated America’s approach toward North Korea since the 1994 Agreed Framework broke down, although the United States has maintained communication channels with North Korea. But sanctions have barely hurt the ruling elites in Pyongyang and have not changed regime behaviors. It is the poor North Korean people who have been suffering from these punitive measures. The West’s current approach to North Korea not only lacks creativity, it is morally deficient.

There is another way – the third way. The international community should initiate a new strategy with one primary objective: the peaceful evolution of the North Korean regime.

This new strategy must include comprehensive contact with North Korea’s people, not just its government. Such full-scale contact would involve more than just providing food and fuel to North Korea as outlined in the now broken Leap Day agreement between the United States and North Korea. And this new third way would take a far more specific and encompassing outreach approach than South Korea's "sunshine policy." As a pillar of this approach, exchanges at the societal level must be promoted.


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