Two Views on North Korea
By Tong Kim
The year 2008 is eclipsing into history with the latest failure of multilateral nuclear talks in Beijing to agree on a verification protocol to check North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Now the North Korean nuclear issue, as incomplete and unsatisfactory as it may be, will be turned over to the incoming Obama administration in January.
The process of denuclearization began in 2003, when the Bush administration did not want to seriously engage the North. During the last two years ― after Bush's policy shift from confrontation to negotiation ― there has been significant progress toward denuclearization.
Today all parties of the six party talks ― the DPRK, ROK, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan ― are still committed to the complete, verifiable dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear programs as agreed in the Sept. 19, 2005 joint statement, a good foundation for further negotiations. In compliance with the 2007 February 13 agreement, North Korea stopped producing fissile material, but it is yet to complete a final phase of disablement at Yongbyon.
The DPRK has completed roughly 90 percent of the disablement and filed a nuclear declaration in return for economic and political benefits, including heavy fuel oil and the removal of its name as a terrorism sponsor. A nuclear verification mechanism is a prerequisite to denuclearization. However, the timing, scope and method of verification remain unresolved. Actual dismantlement of the disabled facilities and the final disposition of plutonium and nuclear weapons are yet to be negotiated in the future.
North Korea has always been dubious about the role of the IAEA since the early 1990's, despite its commitment to return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to accept IAEA inspections in the 9/19 statement. The North has unsuccessfully tried to gloss over its uranium program and its nuclear deal with Syria. It resists the idea of taking nuclear samples for testing.
On top of these troubling problems, the North Korean leadership never trusted President Bush, who disapproved of its system as the axis of evil. By refusing to sign a verification agreement last week, North Korea seems to signal that it had cooperated enough with the Bush administration and that it would wait until Obama takes office.
This does not mean that North Korea, facing no imminent political change, would be more amenable for the new U.S. administration to deal with. North Korea has been tough in all its negotiations with the United States beginning with the negotiation of the Armistice Agreement during the Korean War. In many instances the DPRK has chosen for reasons of political intractability to pay a high price ― more losses of human lives in war or deepened isolation and further economic depredation in peacetime.
North Korea wants to survive as an independent nation. It refuses to capitulate to pressure from distrustful big powers like the United States and China. Traditional Koreans, many of whom live in the North today, have a suicidal mentality of ``dying together" in the worst situation ― ``If I have to die, I will take you with me." This psychology contributes to the North's belligerent postures at times, knowing that they don't have much to lose. They say they are ready for both ``confrontation" and ``negotiation."
Conservative view of North Korea: It is a failed state that cannot produce enough to provide for the livelihood of its people. It is a dictatorial gulag state that suppresses political freedom and human rights that have a universal value. North Korea developed nuclear weapons to protect its harsh system, and it would never give up its nuclear weapons ― it wants to be recognized as a nuclear state. There is no prospect for improvement of livelihood and human rights without a regime change. It is sticks not carrots that work on the North Koreans. It is immoral to help the prolonging of a distasteful rough state like North Korea.
However, there are varying degrees of difference in the conservative view, when it comes to the matter of denuclearization. The Lee government in Seoul for example pursues opening and reform along with denuclearization and a ``democratic unification" at the end, an idealistic but not pragmatic policy. Some heavy weights in the early period of the Bush administration had said U.S. policy should be ``regime change" not ``negotiation." But Bush ended up taking the path for a give and take deal, resulting in an unfinished process that deserves a review.
Realist view of North Korea: Realists do not like what's happening to people in the North. They do not condone the oppressive aspects of its system, but given the limited options available and in recognition of the reality of international politics, they believe that the best way to achieve denuclearization is to talk directly to the North, even within the current framework of the six party talks. The realists believe a complete and verifiable denuclearization is still possible by serious engagement ― if the security of the North Korean regime is assured and if a well-balanced aid package is provided. This approach can help North Korea's self-transformation for the better life of its people. Now is the time to focus on denuclearization.
Not all realists believe North Korea would behave differently as a state or improve the treatment of its people, once the nuclear issue is resolved and normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations is granted. The realists do not rule out reemployment of sanctions if negotiation fails. But they believe the best diplomatic effort is still available. They know North Korea wants to reform its economic structure through foreign investment and to engage in expanded trade with other nations in order to gain its economic and social viability, without which its political system would not be able to sustain itself in the long run.
My view is, while understanding the problems of the North Korean system and the plights of the people living under that system, and while remembering the ruthless practices of the North's policy toward the South and its persisting and difficult negotiating styles, we should still engage North Korea seriously and tactfully.
I believe early denuclearization is still possible if the Obama administration gives proper attention to the issue and shows genuine respect for the North Korean government. The North Koreans know that they cannot keep forever their people uninformed in isolation of what's going on outside their country. They cannot endlessly depend on foreign food aid to feed its people. They will have to do something soon that they have never done before. Undertaking a speedier path to denuclearization will be a good starting point.
In this connection, I think the Seoul government also should seek to get out of the box it has put itself in, a dilemma between sticking to the stated tough policy of waiting for the North's positive response and exploring a way of reengaging the North even at the cost of face. Without restored inter-Korean relations, South Korea's role would be severely limited in the future process of denuclearization. What's your take?
Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University SAIS. He can be reached at email@example.com