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.

Lee Jin-man/AP
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.'

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.

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.

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.

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.

There is no guarantee that this stepped-up engagement would succeed, and at this point it is impossible to know whether the young Kim would be amenable to such an approach. But it’s worth trying, as it would offer both a way out and an alternative that could provide the legitimacy that Kim needs to remain in power. The international community cannot afford military blackmail and the brandishing of weapons of mass destruction to remain the only instruments for Kim to use to stay in power.

The young Kim can be led in this new direction, toward his country’s past glory and away from doomsday weapons. One way to achieve this would be for President Obama to propose a summit, with no preconditions, which would include discussing the possibility of such assistance. For security reasons, such a meeting probably would have to be held in a third country – perhaps China.

Using such a summit as a starting point, Washington could also propose a grand bargain under which, as Pyongyang reduces its threat posture, the US would respond in kind by gradually removing its forces based in South Korea, or basing them in parts of Asia further away from the peninsula. There might be reversals along the way, but it would nevertheless create the self-reinforcing de-escalatory dynamics that are necessary to break the impasse and end the vicious circle.

The regime in Pyongyang needs to be weaned off its addiction to ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, and encouraged to try another form of nourishment. Incentives that promise to restore some of the North’s past glory and help reduce its external dependencies would be hard for Kim to ignore, and if successful, would help bolster the legitimacy of his rule with his people.

But Washington must make the first move in that direction, with South Korea, China, and Japan playing a supporting role. Pyongyang doesn’t want to feel boxed in, and the US won’t pull its troops until the North stops threatening the neighborhood. A new model is needed. Creating the proper incentives for Kim Jong-un, giving him an alternative for his legitimacy, is the only way out.

Unless he is a suicidal maniac, Kim will also want to leave a legacy, and he has two examples before him – his father’s complete failure, and the relative successes of his grandfather. Forcing him to choose which example he wants to follow is the way ahead.

J. Michael Cole is a Taiwan-based contributor to Jane’s Defence Weekly and The Diplomat, and deputy news chief at the Taipei Times.

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