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.
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.
For example, the United States and other Western nations can establish scholarships to invite North Korean students to study abroad. North Korean cultural, educational, and sports teams should be welcomed to participate in more international events. Even military-to-military contact between North Korea and the West, while inconceivable now, should be explored. Full engagement does not mean endorsement of the North Korean regime but aims at positive changes within North Korea.
While the North Korean leadership appears united, different views exist among top leaders. The West can apply a “divide and conquer” strategy to isolate hardliners and encourage potential reformers. Such a strategy has a better chance to influence long-term developments in North Korea than punitive sanctions.
This is not a quixotic idea, but a policy based on reality. Interestingly, North Korea also seems ready to try something new. After the young Kim Jong-un succeeded his father who suddenly died last December, most observers think that life will go on as usual in North Korea. Few have paid attention to recent positive changes inside the Hermit Kingdom.
While Western nations continue to drum up sanctions against North Korea, the isolated country is reaching out to other nations to explore ways to break up ostracism and develop its economy.
Kim Yong Nam, president of the presidium of North Korea’s parliament, recently concluded a visit to Singapore and Indonesia, in an apparent attempt to draw foreign investment and expand trade. Mr. Kim is North Korea’s ceremonial head of state; his visit to Southeast Asia is significant and adds to a recent spate of positive developments in North Korea.
In January, the Associated Press became the first Western media outlet to open a full-time, all-format news bureau in Pyongyang. In May, North Korea and Indonesia signed an agreement to share news stories, photos, TV and video footage, and eventually swap journalists.
The late Kim Jong-il visited China several times, touring boomtowns like Shanghai and Shenzhen. Many wondered why he did not introduce Chinese-style reforms to North Korea. For North Korea, the experiences of smaller Southeast Asian nations are perhaps more relevant.
North Korea considers Singapore a model for growth and attracting foreign direct investment. Singapore became North Korea’s 6th largest trade partner in 2010, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency in Seoul. By firming up trade relations with other countries, North Korea also appears to be trying to avoid over-dependence on China.
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.
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.