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View more articles by Mintaro Oba
Mintaro Oba is a speechwriter at West Wing Writers and a former Korea Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of State.
Every U.S. diplomat, at some point in their career, will face the same problem: an instruction from Washington to deliver an utterly useless message to a foreign government.
So it was with legendary career diplomat Lawrence Eagleburger, who as U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1977 to 1981 received his fair share of what diplomats call “demarche requests.”
As Christopher Hill, then a junior officer under Eagleburger, recounts, the Ambassador once made a show of throwing one request into his inbox before launching into a rant about the “feckless” message. “Pique is no substitute for policy,” Eagleburger concluded.
It’s a saying Hill would deploy in his own conversations as he later rose to become an ambassador in his own right and our chief negotiator in the Six-Party Talks with North Korea. And it’s an important lesson to keep in mind as we consider how to move forward on North Korea policy in a time of high tension.
Americans have every right to be outraged. Otto Warmbier was subjected to brutality no person should ever experience. North Korea concealed his condition and offered explanations that medical experts quickly debunked. Many Americans saw the photos of Warmbier’s return home in the dead of night: an ambulance waiting on the tarmac. We are all outraged.
Policies based on this outrage, on the understandable desire to do something, anything, in response to this tragedy, may feel good. But outrage doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to thoroughly vet North Korea policy and carefully consider the nuances and effects of proposed solutions.
We must reject the false dichotomy in the North Korea policy debate between “engagement” and “pressure”
Exhibit A: recent proposals to ban travel to North Korea. The bipartisan North Korean Travel Control Act introduced by Representatives Adam Schiff and Joe Wilson would “requir[e] a license for transactions related to travel to, from, and within North Korea by American citizens” and “provides that no licenses may be issued for tourist travel.”
The Council of Korean Americans (CKA), though, warns that ambiguity in the bill “may complicate future life-saving contacts between the American people and the North Korean people.”
And as Timothy Rich rightly explains in The Diplomat, the United States rarely restricts travel, and it would be difficult to identify violators and enforce the travel ban.
Further, restricting the freedom of U.S. citizens to travel as they choose is contrary to our own values as a free republic: a key reason why such restrictions are so rare.
The desire to do something makes sense. But it shouldn’t prevent us from taking the time to carefully consider the implications of a travel ban. If the United States does choose to pursue this policy, legislators should at least account for the concerns raised by CKA and others.
The politics of pique have also seeped into the broader North Korea policy debate. Recent commentaries by North Korea policy hardliners like the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Pollack or the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner say the Warmbier case should create a sense of urgency around policy directions they have long advocated.
Pollack has questioned “whether credible diplomacy with North Korea is even possible” and criticizes reports that the Trump administration is intent on holding negotiations with North Korea about its nuclear program.
PLUS ÇA CHANGE
Here’s the reality: the Warmbier case hasn’t changed the basic strategic environment on the Korean Peninsula or the complex, sometimes conflicting, U.S. interests that define North Korea policy.
North Korea’s brutality and methods of repression are by no means a new phenomenon – go to the Committee of Human Rights in North Korea, where I got my start in North Korea policy, and check out their many detailed publications on everything from the prison camp system to the coercive role of North Korean internal security agencies.
The latest developments don’t make the North Korea policy debate any less complicated. Let’s not allow outrage to limit the conversation. We need options – and nuance. Pique is not a policy. So what would a level-headed approach to North Korea look like?
First, I agree with former Brookings Korea Chair Katharine Moon, who emphasized in an interview with the BBC that we need to press for the facts on Warmbier’s detention as well as the remaining U.S. citizens detained in North Korea – and insistently call for their safe return home. Accountability should be our top priority.
Second: we must reject the false dichotomy in the North Korea policy debate between “engagement” and “pressure.”
We have accepted the premise that these are the two sets of solutions for too long – and allowed ourselves to become emotionally invested in one or the other. Level-headed policymaking requires us to consider that policy options from either school of thought can exist together, or alternate as circumstances dictate.
The politics of pique have also seeped into the broader North Korea policy debate
Informed observers of North Korea recognize that North Korea maximizes its leverage by alternating between provocations and charm offensives. Why shouldn’t we reserve similar flexibility for ourselves?
PROTECT THE ALLIANCE
Third, and finally: give the new South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s North Korea policy a full and fair hearing when he visits Washington June 29-30.
The heightened politics of pique in the United States have created a very tough environment for Moon, who is sometimes caricatured as an unabashed proponent of a full-on “Sunshine Policy” engagement with North Korea.
But the reality of Moon’s North Korea policy is more complex. His statements demonstrate the nuance and caution of a politician seeking the flexibility to find common ground. If we reject the premise that North Korea policy approaches are mutually exclusive, it’s possible to coordinate Moon’s engagement policy and the U.S. pressure campaign as a sort of “good cop, bad cop” strategy.
Accountability should be our top priority
Whatever the policy, the United States must always coordinate closely with South Korea. No North Korea policy that doesn’t fully include South Korea can succeed.
Level-headed approaches matter because, as those of us who have worked on North Korea know: there are many more outrageous revelations to come. North Korea will always appall us with its disregard for its people, its grave and systematic violations of basic human rights, and its willingness to do anything to maintain the Kim regime’s power.
This should appall us. But short-term outrage won’t solve long-term problems.
We need the calm to fully consider our options, and the pragmatism to make the difficult decisions that North Korea policy requires.
Pique is not a policy – and outrage is not a solution.
Edited by Oliver Hotham