Rethinking the Goal Posts: Engagement


The never-ending argument of humanitarian aid to the DPRK has grown into a crescendo in the past few weeks. As articulated at CanKor, several voices have piped up on both sides of the issue: those who advocate aid cry for the depoliticization of aid itself, while arguing that the regime has had no qualms behind starving a million or so of their own citizens. On the other hand, those who are against sending aid to North Korea argue that as defector surveys show,  aid does not go to intended recipients and that aid enables, and perhaps even sustains Pyongyang.

Regardless of which side of this argument you fall on (and despite my own views on the subject, I do believe there are merits to both sides), the issue of humanitarian aid is only a subcomponent of a larger meta-issue regarding our own behaviour towards the DPRK: to engage, or not engage?

With the assumption that most readers of CanKor are already familiar with these arguments, I’d like to explore a particular aspect of engagement that has been lost in a vortex of “North Korea Creep”: if we are to engage Pyongyang, what are the goals that we ourselves have set for engagement? Why are we engaging with North Korea? And when do we know when we’ve been successful?

This is where things get very murky. Engaging North Korea without any clear, tangible objectives is a proverbial recipe for disaster. If there is anything we can glean from North Korean intentions throughout the last twenty years, it is that North Korean negotiators are perfectly happy to sit down and talk endlessly with their Chinese, American, South Korean, Japanese and Russian counterparts – in fact, one would think the perfect North Korean scenario would be akin to an episode of Seinfeld. The North Korean regime would be all too happy to find itself sitting opposite to parties who have no idea why they’re sitting at the table in the first place.

For the past twenty years, different entities have engaged North Korea on different issues and completely different objectives. The Americans’ focus has been one of security, and especially the nuclear issue. Although there was a brief period where human rights seemed to creep into the negotiating lexicon in 2002, this too was quickly jettisoned when Jim Kelly accused North Korea of enriching weapons grade uranium (which ironically enough, Pyongyang all but admitted to last year).

The American focus has been remarkably singular: if North Korea was not a nuclear weapons state at all, one would wonder if Washington would be even thinking about talking to Pyongyang at all. And if this is indeed the perception found in Pyongyang, then what incentive would Pyongyang have in giving up nukes? Why would a one trick pony give up its one trick?

In the end, the American singular focus on security not only serves the status quo ante, it gives Pyongyang every incentive to add more negotiating chips which it perceives Washington is interested in. If Washington is only interested in nukes, then why not add some highly enriched uranium into the mix? As such, the only way to disincentivize this type of behaviour is to signal that Washington is interested in other things as well. As a carrot, US investment within the DPRK towards non-sensitive areas (perhaps along the lines of an Orascom type deal) could be one item to add to the agenda. As a stick, small human rights and humanitarian issues can be added, such as the treatment of repatriated refugees, or increased and ready access for the WFP to regions previously denied.

On the other end, South Korean engagement has been somewhat schizophrenic. The Sunshine policy ended up with some achievements (namely the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Kumkang tours), as well as the first ever summit between the leaders of the two countries. But to be honest, Seoul did not receive very much in return. The Sunshine policy was always thoughts to be a loss leader of sorts; however, one wonders whether the South Korean public was ready to shoulder the burden of such a loss, especially with very little to show for it. This is especially in light of questions surrounding the way this type of engagement occured. Do the profits from Kaesong and Kumkang help sustain a regime that builds nuclear weapons outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and operates penal colonies the size of Los Angeles? And are we really going to pay Kim Jong Il $200 m every time we want him to show up to a meeting?

Perhaps the South Korean public was right to be fed up; they overwhelmingly jettisoned Jung Dong Young, the left-of-centre candidate for LMB. But it’s not at all clear what LMB wants to do with North Korea. His stated objective is to continue the Sunshine policy but ensure that North Korea reciprocates this time around. Yet on the flip side, very little has been done to cajole Pyongyang back to the table. And all that LMB has to show for it are a sunken naval ship and a bombed out island.

As such, the South Korean goalposts are much more different from American ones. That is not very remarkable: obviously, the ROK has a much different stake vis-a-vis North Korea than the US does. What is of note is that the basis of engagement, ie. the Sunshine policy, has been based on rather fuzzy objectives with no clear measures of success. The ultimate goal of the policy is to get North Korea to take off the proverbial “coat” and open society to the point that reunification can be feasibly discussed. Yet neither the DJ or Roh administrations put up any clear milestones which would signal that the policy in itself was working – and perhaps give a warning to Pyongyang that if certain steps were not taken, the plug would be pulled. Rather, since the only clear objective was one that was possibly decades down the road, the lack of any short-term or even intermediate goalposts all but ensured that policy fatigue would set in – which to a certain extent, it did.

If Seoul wants to continue this policy (which in theory, is sound), then it needs to start planning out a long term road map with clear milestones with achievable objectives. Engagement for the sake of engagement benefits no one.

This would preferably be with some input from the North Koreans themselves – otherwise such a plan would be perceived as Seoul simply dictating to Pyongyang what to do, diminishing the chances that objectives will be met. To be frank, the North Koreans would probably be as surprised as anyone if a hardline conservative such as LMB asked to sit down with the North Koreans to prepare such a roadmap.

Furthermore, being in the situation of a benefactor, Seoul has far much more leverage over the North Koreans. This leverage can be used to infuse within such a roadmap a vision for a North Korean society which can be much more easy to incorporate in a unified Korea. This certainly includes a North Korean society that respects human rights; a North Korean society without extra-judicial punishment; a North Korean society that has incorporated basic freedoms and rights; as well as a North Korean society that does not know systematic hunger and has access to basic medical care. As with the American process, these initial steps can be small, such as addressing aid access issues as well as the treatment of certain segments of repatriated refugees. Yet if the end goal of engagement is to incentivize North Korean behavioural changes, then such larger issues as the concentration camps, as well as the North Korean regime’s insensitivity towards food security for its own people must be addressed as well.

The ideal situation would be to “Helsinki-tize” this type of engagement approach by bundling both the South Korean and American approaches together so the DPRK faces one negotiating partner, not two. This would decrease the incentive for Pyongyang to attempt to divide and conquer between the two negotiating parties. At the same time, a multilateral approach would also enable junior partners, such as Canada, Norway, and Australia, to join as “joint investors” of some sort.

The one wild card in both the American and South Korean approaches is China. Because of China’s continued interest in keeping the status quo ante, North Korea may have no incentive to really listen to what anyone in Seoul or Washington has to say. If Pyongyang does not like what they hear, they can simply turn to Chinese interests to fill that void (as they attempted to do with Kumkang). As such, any engagement efforts need to have at least some sort of input from Beijing to have any chance of success. This is easier said than done: Beijing obviously has its own designs on North Korea, and would most likely look at a more liberalized DPRK unfavourably.

Yet the spectre that must be impressed upon Beijing (which if it has not already been impressed upon) is the uncertainty of the DPRK’s own future. The PRC is already building larger fences on the Dandong border, with the fear that a catastrophic famine would release another torrent of refugees. If Beijing, Washington, Seoul and a consortium of junior partners can create conditions for a “soft landing” for the DPRK, wouldn’t this serve the best interests of all parties involved – including Pyongyang?

Of course, those who want nothing to do with the North Korean regime would find such an approach distasteful. However, what this approach does do is give the North Korean themselves an opportunity to negotiate a “grand bargain” that would ultimately lead to the liberalization of the country – an outcome which would in the author’s estimation be acceptable to most regime change advocates. On the other hand, if the North Koreans ultimately reject such an aproach (an outcome which regime change advocates would predict), then would this not give advocates of bringing down the regime a strengthened argument for a more hardline policy towards North Korea?

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