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Path of patience toward North Korea

Shift in thought

Trump will be the fourth US president to deal with a nuclearized North Korea. More sanctions might help, but a regime defector points to the use of patience as more North Koreans are dissenting.

Former North Korean deputy ambassador to the UK, Thae Yong Ho, speaks with media n Seoul, South Korea, Jan. 25.
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  • By the Monitor's Editorial Board

For the past quarter century, as North Korea has steadily built up its nuclear arsenal, the United States has mainly exercised two options in response: More sanctions against the North’s economy. And more patience that it would alter its dangerous course. The first is a substitute for war. The second is a hope for peace. The idea of offering “carrots,” such as aid, was abandoned in 2012.

Now, as a fourth American president tries to deal with a nuclearized North Korea, will Donald Trump try anything different?

During his campaign, Mr. Trump hinted at talking directly to the regime’s leader, Kim Jong-un, over a “hamburger meal.” Yet dealmaking, including offers and delivery of aid, has failed again and again while the North only gets closer to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear warheads. Instead, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for US secretary of State, says China must now be forced to end its lifeline of money and supplies to its close ally in Pyongyang.

“If China is not going to comply with [United Nations-ordered sanctions] then it’s appropriate ... for the United States to consider actions to compel them to comply,” he says. That would likely entail sanctions against Chinese companies doing business with North Korea, a risky move in light of many difficult issues with Beijing.

But what about the option of patience?

A bit of advice came this week from Thae Yong-ho, the most senior North Korean diplomat to flee his country. In interviews since his defection last year from the North Korean Embassy in London, Mr. Thae said most of the country’s elite see Mr. Kim pushing North Korea “into a corner of self-destruction.” The regime is also struggling to prevent outside information from reaching its isolated population.

“Low-level dissent or criticism of the regime, until recently unthinkable, is becoming more frequent,” said Thae, as more North Koreans engage in private markets and watch media from other countries. As happened with him, exposure to the outside world also is exposing the regime’s lies about the country’s alleged prosperity and reputation.

“I would like to make it possible for people to rise up,” he told The Washington Post. “We should educate the North Korean people so that they can have their own ‘Korean Spring.’ ”

Such views argue for more US patience as well as applying more pressure on China to squeeze the regime. The US can also further help South Korea develop defenses against the North’s missiles.

Peace has been largely maintained on the Korean Peninsula under a mix of sanctions and patience, as well as military deterrence. Perhaps the option of patience is closer to allowing North Koreans to solve this problem.