This is the second in a two-part series on why the U.S. has not engaged with North Korea. The first can be found here.
Back in 2010 U.S. political scientist Mel Gurtov asked, in an article in the Seoul journal Global Asia, “Is He Serious About Engagement?” The “he,” of course, referred to President Barack Obama, and Gurtov was asking him to honor his campaign pledges to engage “adversaries such as North Korea and Iran.” Since then the U.S., for various reasons, has been involved in negotiations with Iran and with the sudden rise of the Islamic State there may actually be some movement. However, the prospect of negotiations with North Korea have been stymied by the demand for pre-conditions which are clearly, and predictably, unacceptable to Pyongyang. These were most recently reiterated by Glyn Davies, Obama’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy, in testimony to Congress on July 30. Accordingly Gurtov has returned to the fray with a substantial article, “Why the U.S. Should Engage North Korea Right Now,” published August 13.
Gurtov quite correctly asserts that while official Washington talks about diplomacy and readiness to “engage” the insistence on preconditions means that these protestations are hollow:
However, what Washington offers is not engagement but sticks and carrots: If North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, the United States will have dialogue with it. North Korean denuclearization is the U.S. price for deeper contact, which may or may not amount to serious engagement.
“Dialogue” is surely a pretty small and mouldy carrot for unilateral denuclearization. What about the sticks? North Korea tends to keep fairly quiet about their effect, for quite obvious and standard reasons; countries seldom divulge the damage inflicted by enemies both to preserve domestic morale and to deny intelligence to the adversary, but clearly the economic and social damage has been huge. However, what is relevant here is that the sticks have done their worst. The DPRK has survived and whilst still economically wounded, with food security a continuing issue, there are signs of recovery. Whilst some American politicians claim that sanctions can be strengthened, with more sting, this is unlikely. Indeed, both Robert Gallucci and Christopher Hill agree that sanctions are ineffective in forcing North Korea to buckle under:
Gallucci also said sanctions are not a good idea to deal with North Korea because China, which has an interest in not seeing the North Korean regime collapse, will intervene. “The regime in the North has very high tolerance for pain suffered by its people. These are not very nice people,” he said.
A variant on this theme comes from Christopher Hill who complained that:
North Koreans, (..) seem to be prepared to fight to their last starving child…
Not nice people who would fight to the last starving child? Probably true, but it skirts the awkward fact that primary moral responsibility for the starving of children lies with those who impose sanctions, rather than those that resist them. Which calls to mind Madeleine Albright’s embarrassing confession, in an interview with Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes in 1996:
“We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And – and you know, is the price worth it?”
Madeleine Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”
Hill, incidentally, is now a senior advisor to Madeleine Albright’s global strategy and business advisory firm, Albright Stonebridge Group.
The effectiveness of sticks is rather irrelevant in the absence of more meaningful carrots. The North Korean elite surely sees the dangers of acquiescence to American demands, with the very strong possibility of a U.S./South Korean takeover, as far worse than the effects of sanctions. Execution, imprisonment, unemployment and subordination are not prospects to be lightly embraced, and the lessons of Iraq, Libya and Syria, amongst so many others, are no doubt learnt. Even the knowledge, surely widespread, of the consequences of the non-violent absorption of East Germany by West Germany would be sufficient cause for resistance; they will not go gentle into that night.
Gurtov does not tease out the inherent dysfunctionality of “sticks and carrots” as presently constructed but he does correctly stress that engagement is something more:
By engagement I mean a process that involves reaching out to an adversary in ways that may catalyze new directions for policy. The purpose of engagement, therefore, is to create an environment conducive to policy change on both sides by focusing on joint (as well as unilateral and multilateral) actions that will move the parties away from destructive conflict.
Another way of putting this is to invoke the usual meaning of engagement – a promise to marry or more prosaically in this context, a commitment to a new, non-adversarial, relationship. Which then leads to the question, what sort of relationship might the two sides, North Korea and America, seek to forge?
North Korea, it is clear, wants a normal, non-hostile relationship. No sanctions, physical or financial, no hampering of trade and investment, no military threat. In short, the sort of relationship that should obtain between two equally sovereign member states of the United Nations. Or, to use the current, much-abused phrase, responsible members of the international community. Even, some suggest, a friendly relationship to counterbalance China. It is quite clear that the United States wants no such thing. That being so, is it possible that the U.S. will, after all, move towards engagement?
Gurtov gives seven reasons why he thinks it should, but it is doubtful whether they really have much traction in Washington. For instance, he argues that:
First, North Korea has at least several nuclear weapons and is now widely rumored to be restarting production of more. More nukes can only add to strategic instability and the danger of a terrible miscalculation.
The situation is more complicated than he allows. North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, in itself, enhances stability, as Kenneth Waltz has pointed out in relation to Iran. That stability is not welcome to the U.S. However, North Korea’s nuclear weapons give impetus to the remilitarization of Japan, an instability of which the U.S. is very much in favor. From the viewpoint of the containment of China, North Korea’s nuclear program might be considered “worth it.”
Even if the U.S. could be persuaded to move to a deal with North Korea, what form might it take? Gurtov argues that North Korea would respond to an American proposal that offered various things, including “some assurance against U.S. designs to bring about regime change,” diplomatic recognition, and “provide international guarantees of North Korea’s security and ease and eventually end sanctions.”
In order to evaluate this assessment two basic aspects of the situation need noting. First, because of the extreme disparity in power between the U.S. and North Korea, it does not really matter if the latter “cheats” because there is nothing it can do which can endanger the U.S. However, a U.S. reneging on its commitments could be fatal for North Korea. Secondly, we are necessarily talking about the exchange of physical, probably irrevocable, actions for mere promises and assurances. This means that North Korea will be extremely cautious in responding to any American proposal.
Here we must remember the example of Libya; they do in Pyongyang. The U.S. persuaded Libya to abandon its nuclear program in return for assurances that it would not pursue regime change. Condoleezza Rice claimed that this was an example that North Korea (and Iran) should emulate. The assurances were forgotten and not merely was Gadhafi brutally murdered, but Libya has been devastated. A potent example indeed.
A U.S. engagement with North Korea is highly desirable. Gurtov is not alone in pointing out that the present situation is very dangerous, for the Koreans and possibly the world. However, we need to engage with the concept of engagement based on a clear-headed analysis of the situation. This means taking into account the asymmetries in power, governance, and motivation between America and North Korea, and situate those within the wider geopolitical context. North Korea is a small, controlled state whose motivation is relatively straightforward; survival and prosperity. The U.S. is a far bigger and more disarticulated state, with a global empire to run, and consequently its motivations are more complex and its foreign policies both contested and constrained by domestic politics. The Obama administration shows no indication of wanting to engage with North Korea, but global geopolitics are in flux and it is possible, though unlikely, that it may be obliged to consider a change in policy. There might be some sort of rapprochement between Japan and North Korea. South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye might seek to improve relations with the North. The deepening confrontation with Russia, and with China, might entice Washington to improve relations with Pyongyang in order to weaken its real adversaries.
If there is a change in U.S. policy it will come about primarily because of shifts in the geopolitical environment, not the well-intentioned concerns of American citizens. However, thinking clearly about engagement can help lay the foundation.
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