Point of View

Nudging North Korea toward new realities

March 7, 2013 

Even as North Korea shakes its fist at the world, a series of political and leadership changes across the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere is coalescing to provide a rare opportunity to negotiate with this restless nation. It is time to try a different kind of dialogue – one based on partnership that comes from real needs of all parties.

With a different diplomatic approach, and given the poor nation’s many internal struggles, North Korea just might be ready to listen. Here’s why.

The political shifts in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Myanmar – traditional North Korea allies – greatly affect North Korea’s position in the world. Despite recent activities such as a rocket launch in December and the detonation of a nuclear device this month, all ordered by its seemingly confident young leader, Kim Jong Un, we may be witnessing a North Korea that is at its most isolated and vulnerable in history.

Of equal importance, the countries most important to North Korea held elections last year that, collectively, could influence the nation in many ways. In Russia, Japan, China and the United States, leaders have been elected or re-elected by voters demanding better economies, with the governments expected to play a big role in spurring these improvements. Added to this list now is South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, who was inaugurated this month.

To be sure, we are not witnessing drastic changes in the political orientations of these governments. Japan’s Abe, for example, has returned as prime minister precisely because of his center-right policies. But given the economic and military volatility in the world, it is in their best interest to try to broach better relations with North Korea.

These countries can both offer something to, and benefit economically from, an improved relationship with North Korea. And given the weight of expanding U.N. sanctions, the recent loss of economic partners in the Middle East and Asia and the rapidly growing number of ordinary people choosing to leave the country, North Korea’s new leadership will be compelled, more than ever, to accept international partnerships.

The rhetoric of partnership is therefore tied to actual circumstances. The economies of these countries are suffering from uneven growth and high unemployment. Countries like South Korea and Japan urgently need to create jobs, especially for young people. Austerity measures and tax breaks are always on the policy table, but as France’s Hollande has rightly suggested what may save the day is government-led expansion.

A good example is in infrastructure construction. From telecommunication and transportation to housing and schools, North Korea can potentially be a major player. Ethnic and religious conflicts do not exist there, and its educated, hardworking people desperately need the stability that can come from decent jobs. In short, North Korea has the capacity to be a manufacturing hub for overseas businesses.

If nations partner with North Korea while upholding labor laws and environmental standards, then other issues like the nuclear program will eventually have to be debated according to international standards as well. Something like this almost happened in 1994, when North Korea agreed with the U.S. to stop its own nuclear program in exchange for U.S.-assisted nuclear energy development.

The obvious question remains: How do we partner with a nation that continues to build bombs and threaten its detractors? We face it realistically and act rationally. After all, partnering with difficult governments is part of international politics and diplomacy.

That’s why we should move away from the carrot-or-the-stick logic, which has hardly worked in the past, and deal with the North Korean government on many fronts simultaneously. Dialogue should address multiple issues, from joint ventures and international aid to labor standards and human rights.

This level of dialogue would likely increase personal, academic and cultural exchange, all for the better in pushing North Korea to face a changing world. At the same time, it would ease our own coming to terms with the cold reality that many regions of the world may need North Korea as much North Korea needs them. How we begin the talk could make all the difference.

Cheehyung Kim, a North Korea historian, is a faculty fellow at Duke University.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service