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Opinion

Obama must throw North Korea a curve ball – a helping US hand

The US can exploit Pyongyang and Kim Jong-un's pride by shelving the nuclear issue for now, engaging in talks, and offering substantial aid and investments that boost North Korea's economy and helps its people 'help themselves.' This can break the cycle of threats and blackmail.

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His failures stand out when contrasted with decades of relative success and stability under his father and North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung. But Kim-the-second used the state propaganda apparatus and national paranoia to turn his nuclear ambitions into an instrument of legitimacy for his rule.

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It is hardly surprising, therefore, that US insistence that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear program before direct talks could resume was met with failure, leading to where we are today.

But what about the younger Kim? A nuclear program alone will not suffice to ensure his support among North Koreans. That is his father’s legacy. Having few other options short of sparking a war of annihilation, the new leader might therefore be tempted to turn to the glory days of the North’s past for inspiration and as a source of legitimacy. North Koreans cried openly when Kim Il-sung passed away; when Kim Jong-il died, the outpourings of grief were fake, an orchestrated affair. It is hard to imagine that the young Kim isn’t aware of this.

A new strategy to deal with North Korea would seek to exploit Pyongyang’s pride, or rather, its need to be proud. It wants recognition, and above all it wants to show the world that its model, too, can be successful. To understand the North’s need to impress, one need only look at the multibillion-dollar (mostly unfinished) infrastructure projects it launched in the 1980s after the International Olympic Committee announced that Seoul would host the 1988 Summer Olympics.

Washington could start its new approach by shelving the nuclear issue for the time being, and instead engaging Pyongyang at other levels. This could include exploring ways to help the North rebuild its economy and modernize its industries, or offering it assistance in extracting the rich mineral assets that lie in its soil.

Anything that plays into the national psyche of juche, or “self-sufficiency,” would help dispel the national sentiment of being embattled – certainly more so than sending B-2 bombers and warships to the region. Juche is also why foreign aid, such as food donations, haven’t succeeded in breaking the impasse, as they remain symbols of North Korean subservience to external forces.

Above all, the new aid and investment proposed here must help North Koreans help themselves. And it must be much more far-reaching than the South Korean-funded experiment with the Kaesong Industrial Park, a collaboration located in North Korea. This week North Korea pulled 50,000 of its workers from the park's factories, essentially shutting it down.

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