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Creating a virtuous circle with North Korea

Shift in thought

South Korea’s offer of talks with Pyongyang on minor issues aims to create enough trust and goodwill to tackle the tougher issues. The alternative is more of a vicious circle in military escalation.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, second form right, speaks with his senior secretaries at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, July 17. Less than two weeks after North Korea's first intercontinental ballistic missile test, Moon offered to hold talks at the tense border separating the two Koreas in what would be the rivals' first face-to-face meeting in 19 months.
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

With tensions rising over North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, the new president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, has decided to break what he calls “the vicious circle of military escalation.” On July 17, his government offered to hold talks with North Korea. The purpose is not to negotiate a much-delayed peace deal but seek dialogue over lesser issues. Those include reestablishing a military hotline, joint hosting next year’s Winter Olympics, and resuming the reunion of Korean families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

The two sides have not held talks since 2015, or just before North Korea began rapid advances in the firing range of its missiles. Any gradual engagement with North Korea now, Mr. Moon hopes, might lead to a virtuous circle of trust and goodwill that allows the two Korean nations to negotiate the difficult issues of nuclear disarmament and mutual recognition.

Simply imposing more economic sanctions on Pyongyang, he claims, will not be easy to achieve. Instead, a peaceful path to settle the North Korean nuclear issue must be opened. “[T]he need for dialogue is more pressing than ever before,” Moon said in a speech in Berlin in early July.

His offer of talks over minor issues builds on a long tradition of bite-size diplomacy, or what Henry Kissinger has called “the patient accumulation of advantage.” Among diplomats, the notion that virtues such as trust and compassion can create their own self-reinforcing loop and lead to sustaining success is not new. In 1947, US Secretary of State George Marshall proposed using American aid to seed the recovery of a Europe laid flat by war. “The remedy lies in breaking the vicious circle and restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries,” he said.

The idea that initial good steps can build on themselves also has a long history in economics – although economists differ on which measures serve as catalysts to enforce economic progress. In a sign of universal confidence in virtuous circles, the United Nations set specific goals in 2015 that would end poverty by 2030, referring to the goals as “sustainable.”

Moon’s proposal for talks with North Korea also builds on a lesson from history to not let problems fester. As Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar puts it, “Are we content to react to events or should we be shaping them more, on occasion even driving them?” He cites India’s strategy of seeking good relations with many countries as one of creating “a virtuous cycle where each one drives the other higher.”

North Korea has a long record of agreeing to talks and then merely seeking concessions, such as food aid for its people. Moon’s offer does run the risk of rewarding the North’s bad behavior. Yet the alternative of military escalation and a chance of a devastating war could be seen as a greater risk. 

At the least, the offer may serve as a test of the North Korean regime’s current intentions and its perception of its survival. That alone would be helpful feedback. For now, South Korea should be allowed to see if the virtuous can replace the vicious.