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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.

By J. Michael Cole / April 10, 2013

Soldiers from South Korea look at North Korea through binoculars on April 10 at the Dora Observation Post near the border village of Panmunjom. Op-ed contributor J. Michael Cole writes: 'Creating the proper incentives for Kim Jong-un' by giving him a source of legitimacy other than the nuclear program 'is the only way out.'

Lee Jin-man/AP

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Taipei, Taiwan

After nearly two decades of cyclical delinquency, it is high time that the international community stops playing North Korea’s game and explore alternatives to resolve its belligerence once and for all. The current approach has failed, and the longer it is maintained, the closer it will take the region to the brink of war.

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The key to changing Pyongyang’s attitude isn’t more sanctions or the deployment of more US troops within the region. While such actions can act as a deterrent against North Korea, they only postpone – and in fact render less likely – the resolution of the conflict and its underlying causes.

What is required, and what only Washington can do, given Pyongyang’s fixation with the US and the presence of its troops in South Korea, is a new, creative approach that focuses on substantial US investment to help North Korea rebuild its economy. This shift would remove the nuclear issue as a legitimizing component of the regime in Pyongyang and neutralize nuclear blackmail as a means for the North to win concessions from the international community.

South Korea attempted to do this with its “sunshine policy,” but that ultimately failed because it did not address the issue of US deployments in South Korea. The only bilateral mechanism that truly matters to Pyongyang is with Washington; everything else, even its relations with Beijing and Seoul, is secondary.

Meeting threats with threats only feeds the national paranoia in North Korea and gives the regime the rationale for redirecting even more resources away from an already destitute people toward the military.

Further, it reinforces Pyongyang’s argument that the principal factor hampering peaceful development is the longstanding US military presence in the region. The North’s insistence on splitting the US-South Korea alliance endures because the North has nothing else to focus on, nothing that appeals as much to the national psyche of victimization.

The time has therefore come to throw Pyongyang a curve ball and to create new opportunities.

The transition of power in Pyongyang following Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011 and the succession of his son, Kim Jong-un, provides such an opportunity. While little is known about the secretive new leader, we know that his father’s 17 years as “dear leader” were a complete failure. In fact, the elder Kim’s only accomplishment was a fledging nuclear program.

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