North Korea: The Case for Re-Engagement

In the West, North Korea’s missile launch in December was framed as still another example of nuclear blackmail. In reality, the launch, the counter-productive international sanctions, the mounting nuclear threats and Kim Jong-un’s call for “radical turn” suggest a new diplomatic opportunity for Washington and Beijing alike.

Diplomatic rush

On December 12, North Korea launched its Unha-3 rocket, which Pyongyang sees as part of its peaceful space program. The previous efforts in February 2009 and April 2012 had been unsuccessful.

In the United Nations, a group of Western governments supported added Security Council sanctions. In contrast, China was reluctant to enact measures against North Korea, which enraged Washington. Beijing expressed regret over the Pyongyang move, but also willingness to revive the Six-Party-Talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Reportedly, U.S. UN Ambassador Susan Rice said to her Chinese counterpart that Beijing’s resistance to new sanctions was “ridiculous.”

In the first televised New Year’s Day message in two decades, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for improving the economy, support for peaceful reunification and increasing living standards for the poor nation.

Only a week later, a humanitarian mission, led by former U.S. UN ambassador Bill Richardson, headed to North Korea. The delegation included Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas think tank director Jared Cohen. In Pyongyang, Richardson urged the regime to call a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests. The White House characterized the humanitarian mission as “unhelpful,” while U.S. State Department called it “ill advised.”

A week later, another diplomatic front was seized against Pyongyang as the U.S. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay of South Africa, declared North Korea’s abuse of its own citizens “long overdue” for investigation on grounds of crimes against humanity.

Last Sunday, the United States and China reportedly struck a tentative deal on a draft U.N. Security Council resolution condemning North Korea for its December rocket launch. While the resolution would call for expanding existing U.N. sanctions measures against Pyongyang, it would not impose new sanctions.

The simple reality is that neither the West’s unipolar diplomacy nor the U.N. sanctions, which reflected that diplomacy through the postwar era, no longer work in the nascent multipolar world.

The way to deter nuclear proliferation is engagement – not isolation.

Two different perspectives

The talks over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have been lingering since they were initiated by the Clinton Administration in the early 1990s. After the George W. Bush presidency and the first term of the Obama Administration, the negotiations shifted to the Six-Party Talks, which include all parties – the United States, China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and Russia – that have a vital stake in the region.

Some key agreements have been reached for aid and recognition to North Korea, in exchange for denuclearization. But as enforcement has proved challenging, talks have been suspended since 2009. Despite being the target of U.S. sanctions, North Korea has received over $1 billion in U.S. aid. Meanwhile, concern about nuclear proliferation has increased.

After Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011, Washington has monitored the transfer of power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. After two decades of false starts in talks and aborted policy postures, the current White House has opted for sanctions and building alliances against Pyongyang.

While Washington has never had diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, China remains North Korea’s largest provider of food, fuel, and industrial machinery to the country. In Washington, Beijing’s role is regarded as invaluable to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, in addition to preventing nuclear proliferation.

Since the global crisis, Beijing and Pyongyang have had amicable but occasionally strained diplomatic and economic relations after Beijing’s negative response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests in October 2006. The latter led China to agree to UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on North Korea, and to stricter sanctions after Pyongyang’s second nuclear test in May 2009.

While Washington’s primary interest is in denuclearization and human rights, Beijing has an even greater interest in regional stability, which trumps considerations that are seen as more medium- to long-term by nature.

Electromagnetic pulse attack – or radical turn

In the past few months, North Korea has often been associated with the potential of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States.

The U.S. concern remains that a nuclear weapon, even if it would be exploded hundreds of miles above the U.S. could unleash EMP effects, thus bringing American economy to a standstill.

In his New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for a “radical turn” in his country, for science and technology not only to boost the military but to unleash “industrial revolution in the new century.” Moreover, these improvements should be manifested in the people’s “standard of living.” The latter term was used half a dozen times, amidst the more traditional political liturgies.

For years, Chinese leadership has repeatedly urged Pyongyang to take advantage of China’s lessons in economic reforms. Kim Jong-il listened, but initiated few reforms. Kim Jong-un could be a different story.

Of course, critics will see this address as just another ploy to encourage appeasement. Nonetheless, international sanctions have seldom had positive effects. Punitive actions should serve cooperation, not undermine it.

In the poorest economies, the rise of the entrepreneurial class is the most vital imperative – and one that these sanctions have consistently demolished.

Toward re-engagement

Where Washington’s preferred solution has been tougher sanctions against Pyongyang, Beijing prefers greater engagement and more diplomacy.

The U.S. approach has resulted in harsh rhetoric, but toothless measures. The Chinese approach shows few short-term gains, but its objectives are essentially medium- to long-term.

Symbolic politics in the U.N., even in the Security Council, is not the way out. New sanctions against North Korea would only foster greater instability in the region. Further, Kim Jong-un’s call for a “radical turn” requires the support of the international community, not sanctions.

What is needed is the resurgence of the Six-Party Talks in the region, greater bilateral strategic trust between Washington and Beijing, and increasing multipolar cooperation against potential EMP threats worldwide.

The path toward economic reforms and opening-up policies goes through re-engagement – not through isolation.

A shorter and updated version of “The Time To Re-Engage North Korea Is Now,” China-US Focus, January 10, 2013


2 Responses to "North Korea: The Case for Re-Engagement"

  1. Jose79845   January 22, 2013 at 11:46 am

    The United Nations are against North Korea because they legalized marijuana. Then the United Nations claim human rights violations when United Nations operatives try to compromise key figures in North Korea with heroin. It has nothing to do with the missle launch.

  2. allan Dougherty   January 23, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    The UN should insist that the US withdraw its troops, which have threatened North Korea for over 60 years. President Carter started negotiations for peace which were immediately stopped by the military industrial complex which supervises the Pentagon and the State Department. Again the State Department is meddling in North Korea's internal affairs by trying to raise human rights issues and drug charges which are completely irrelevant and counter to realistic peace efforts. Let's have some real peace talks!