This morning’s panel, “What can be done about North Korea?” contained much of the familiar definitions and explanations of the North Korea problem, and many of the well-worn regrets of North Korean intransigence. The list of North Korean transgressions include the continuation of its nuclear program, its clear intent to solidify its status as a nuclear state, weapons trafficking by North Korea to terror organizations in the Middle East and the threat that the Kim Jong-Il regime represents to the region.
Discussion about what can be done with North Korea centered around the familiar cycle of incentive and sanctions, offers of economic and humanitarian aid, continuation of the Six-Party Talks, enforcement of UNSC Resolutions (1718 and 1874, respectively), and the desire to partner with China to resolve the problems presented by a rogue North Korean regime. While thoughtfully expressed, the majority of the panel discussion was not new.
What was new, at least to the ears of the panel attendees, was the perspective of Dr. Katy Oh, a long-time policy advisor on the North Korea problem. Dr. Oh’s assertions were refreshing to hear and drove to the heart of the failure of US policy toward North Korea over the last fifteen years and three administrations.
Dr. Oh laid out some unpopular but largely inescapable conclusions regarding the North Korean regime. North Korea will never give up its nuclear capability. It will use that capability to execute what is described as “coercive diplomacy” against its neighbors (Japan and South Korea) in the region. The “change in behavior” sought by US policy toward North Korea is highly unlikely given the nature of an insular and repressive dictatorship. The Six-Party Talks have little real value, and are being incorporated into the North Korean paradigm of “negotiate, prevaricate, escalate, then re-negotiate”.
China’s role and motivations towards North Korea, she believes, are misunderstood by the United States. A territorial hegemon who recognizes the United States as an economic rival and potential military adversary, China does not align her long term interests in the region with the United States, even if she has some common goals (nuclear disarmament) regarding North Korea. China is looking to reduce or replace US influence in the region, and is willing to use North Korea, within limits, as a foil to US interests and those of her allies. China remains, to a certain extent, North Korea’s benefactor and protector, especially when doing so frustrates US plans for regional influence.
Also, the pervasive belief that North Korea is susceptible to internal collapse does not reflect the reality of the skill and determination of the regime to survive. Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, says Dr. Oh, will not easily go away.
The approach offered by Dr. Oh to break the impasse regarding North Korea was a novel and interesting one. Rather than more high-level government-to-government effort that has limited chance of success, her assertion is that the effort needs to be a direct reaching out to the people of North Korea. She has written extensively about the state of “the forgotten people” of that grim land. Dr. Oh has noted the subtle but definite introduction of information technologies that have the potential to bring to the isolated and suppressed people of North Korea the ideas and information that drives the societal change that topples oppressive regimes.
Dr. Oh calls this outcome “constructive destruction”. She points out that US options regarding North Korea are very limited, and thus far North Korea’s strategy for survival has been far more effective than the last decade and a half of US policy to disarm the North. Now, however, she sees the opportunity for exploiting the “double life” led by a small but significant number of North Korean citizens who are “socialist by day, and capitalist by night” as they begin to comprehend the advantages of the officially demonized South Korean and American (and ironically, Chinese) free-market economies.
Dr. Oh’s proposition of direct engagement of the North Korean people does indeed have precedent. Our efforts at the height of the Cold War, with Radio Free Europe, to directly engage the Eastern European peoples subjugated by the Soviet yoke, yielded results that manifested themselves as soon as the prospect of freedom from Communist dictatorship became a realistic possibility. Similar effects may be possible behind one of the last vestiges of the Iron Curtain, on the peninsula of Korea.
Dr. Oh’s ideas are worth a serious look. Current policy, and that of the past administrations, has been nearly entirely ineffective and are likely to remain so. North Korea is a dangerous enemy, a regional threat, and potentially a global one (with proliferation of fissile materials). The government will not yield. But the people, when they are exposed to life outside the borders of their depressed and repressive country, may force their hand.