The Road to Pyongyang Goes Through Helsinki, by Frank Jannuzi

[Frank Jannuzi serves as Deputy Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, and head of the AI Washington, D.C. office. An international affairs policy and political expert, he previously served Chairman John Kerry as Policy Director for East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the Democratic staff of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. His 12 April 2013 article in Foreign Policy highlights an idea that has been tossed around in policy circles for the last several years, namely the idea of finding a regional solution to the Korean conundrum. The model would be the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which resulted in the “Helskinki Accords” that involved all of Europe, including the then-Soviet Union and North America. Helsinki is widely believed to have been the first step in the eventual dismantlement of communism in Eastern Europe. Foreign Policy is published by the FP Group, a division of the Washington Post Company. –CanKor]

Frank Jannuzi 1Here’s how you really solve the North Korean nuke problem.

The world needs to change the pieces and stop playing the DPRK’s game.

The leaders of the DPRK are not motivated by a love of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, but by their quest for security and power. To persuade them to abandon their nuclear weapons, the voices of the North Korean people, especially elites in Pyongyang, will be more powerful than those of foreigners. We can’t be certain what North Koreans make of their nation’s circumstances, because there is no independent domestic media, no known opposition political parties, no independent civil society, and criticism of the government can lead to imprisonment. But we know that the government makes extraordinary efforts to prevent its people from learning the truth about the failures of their economy and the successes of the DPRK’s neighbors. By focusing its attention on the human dimension of the North Korean challenge, the world can gradually change the attitudes of the elites and thereby bring pressure on the leadership to see their nuclear program as a liability rather than an asset.

The DPRK’s leaders will not be easily swayed. The Obama administration has held up Myanmar as an example — change course, and the United States will be your friend. But viewed from Pyongyang, the Libya case study remains far more persuasive than the example of Myanmar, no matter how gussied up. North Korea’s leaders believe that Muammar al-Qaddafi’s decision to abandon his nuclear program allowed the subsequent overthrow of his government.

The Obama administration’s approach has come to be known as “strategic patience.” I have learned over 24 years of dealing with the DPRK that “wise and masterly inactivity” can sometimes be an effective tactic. Right now, for instance, the first order of business is to defuse the current crisis by avoiding tit-for-tat escalations, restoring North-South cooperation at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and reiterating offers of dialogue. These steps require only patience.

But inactivity, however masterful, must eventually give way to action. The smart choice on the Korean Peninsula is to engage Pyongyang with the goal of improving human rights, especially access to information. That’s how we will change the dynamic that has driven us from crisis to crisis — and ultimately resolve the nuclear issue.

It’s worked before. The 1975 Helsinki Accords and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that they created promoted reconciliation among former adversaries and, ultimately, the end of the Cold War. The Helsinki process established people-to-people channels of communication and cooperation between East and West, with a heavy focus on human rights and exchanges. As Korea expert Andrei Lankov has pointed out, contrary to the expectations of the skeptics, those channels, over time, reshaped public opinion in the Soviet Union, encouraging a process of opening up and reform.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has proposed a Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation Initiative to replace or augment the defunct Six Party Talks on denuclearization. It is a worthy idea. If embraced by China, Russia, and the United States, a Helsinki-style peace mechanism could be established with the immediate goal of expanding contacts at all levels of North Korean society and enhancing the access of the North Korean people, especially elites, to reliable sources of information. Truth is a powerful antidote for fear and repression. Governments and NGOs should address the nutritional and public health needs of North Korea’s malnourished and sick children, and the international community should press for every North Korean prisoner to have not just humane living conditions, but justice.

The North Korean people are smart, hard-working, and ambitious, but they cannot grasp a future obscured by the smoke of Musudan missile launches or hidden by the barriers of international isolation. Putting human rights first, and doing so through a regional mechanism that fosters openness, should be an alternative to the policies that have failed for so many years to resolve to conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

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