For a number of years, I and many other specialists on North Korea have urged the United States and other governments to engage that country. Through various confrontations over nuclear weapon and missile tests, name-calling, and on-again off-again talks in both multilateral and bilateral settings, we have clung to the view that only engagement holds out hope of settling the nuclear issue (or at least stopping North Korea’s further production of nuclear weapons) and preserving some degree of access to the beleaguered North Korean people. We were well aware of the North Korean gulag—the secret network of camps, the stories of torture and killings, the arbitrary arrests, the heroic efforts to escape the country. And we were naturally disturbed by the draconian nature of the Kim dynasty’s rule—disturbed enough to be fairly confident that it was going to be around for a long time, despite the expectations in Washington and elsewhere of the regime’s imminent demise.
Now comes further confirmation of the horrendous human-rights conditions in North Korea, in the form of an unprecedented report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea on February 17. (A 36-page summary and the full report are available at www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/ReportoftheCommissionofInquiryDPRK.aspx.) The commission, composed of nationals of Australia, Serbia, and Indonesia, worked for a year, examining nine areas of human rights violations. These include the right to food, inhuman treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement.
The report is a searing indictment, not merely of those who perpetrated these crimes against humanity (individuals are not named, but the state agencies are), but also of the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. Of course, the North Korean government rejected this inquiry even before it began; and now that the report is in, Pyongyang has unequivocally rejected its findings. Most likely, this extraordinary condemnation will have no immediate consequences for the regime’s leaders, since the Chinese and Russian UN delegates in the Security Council will not allow the report to be referred to the International Criminal Court (the ICC which, you will recall, the United States has never accepted).
Making the case for engagement is now an even greater challenge. And yet I would like to make it here—aware not only that the North Korean leadership is guilty of the most egregious crimes against its own people, but also that in the present political climate here, engaging the North hasn’t a ghost of a chance in the White House or the Congress. Iran is one thing—and that story is hardly over—but when it comes to North Korea, there is no constituency such as Iran has for promoting talks and perhaps another package deal.
In a nutshell, I think the case for persisting in finding engagement opportunities with North Korea comes down to five considerations. First, it has at least several nuclear weapons and is now widely rumored to be restarting production of more. More nukes can only add to instability and the danger of a terrible miscalculation. Second, every time North Korean leaders feel threatened or ignored, they undertake a weapons test or other provocative action. Third, China’s view of North Korea has changed; it has come to regard the Kim regime as a strategic liability, though not to the extent of dumping it altogether or consistently carrying out UN-approved sanctions. But China’s changed attitude presents an opportunity for creative multilateral diplomacy. Fourth, as the former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung argued in crafting his “Sunshine policy,” greater security for the North really promotes greater security for the South. That means providing the North with security assurances and economic assistance rather than driving it into a corner or ignoring it altogether. Fifth, engagement increases opportunities for direct contact with the North Korean people and lower-level officials. We do have concrete examples of how appreciative these Koreans are when they receive meaningful help, such as in medical supplies and training, wind power generation, fisheries, apple orchards, and scientific and academic exchanges. Someday, that help will facilitate peaceful Korean unification.
On the other hand, consider what it means when we (and I include the European Union, Japan, and South Korea) reject engagement and continue the approach of insisting that North Korea must first disarm before serious negotiations can get underway. North Korea will add to its nuclear weapon arsenal. It will carry out more nuclear and missile tests, and will keep selling weapons components to militant groups and governments. It will create armed incidents that will compel a violent response. It will crack down even harder on its population, in search of “enemies of the state” who have cell phones or listen to South Korean broadcasts. It will bar or greatly limit nongovernmental groups that offer economic or other assistance. It will embolden the most hawkish elements in the North Korean leadership, providing them with evidence that more nukes provide the only real security.
The overhanging question when it comes to North Korea has sometimes been phrased as: Should we negotiate with evil? Dick Cheney famously answered no during the nuclear crisis of the first George W. Bush administration. We know how far that got us. One thing Cheney never understood is that the North Koreans were asking the same question. After all, in their eyes—and not without some justification—we are the evil ones. Engagement requires jettisoning Cheney’s devils-versus-angels view of international relations. And it so happens, as a Stanford University study in 2008 found, that when it comes to negotiating, North Korea has a pretty good record of compliance with agreements. (See Negotiating with North Korea: 1992-2007 by Robert Carlin and John W. Lewis, at http://iis-db.stanford.edu/pubs/22128/negotiating_with_North_Korea_1992-2007.pdf.)
Engagement does not guarantee good behavior, of course; but, as North Korean officials have long insisted, if the US abandons its “hostile policy,” the nuclear issue and much else can be resolved. We should test that view, one step (and one incentive) at a time—even as we support international condemnation of the Kim regime’s human rights record. In fact, at least for the sake of our own credibility when it comes to justice, isn’t it about time for the US to sign and ratify the Rome Treaty and thus support the UN Commission of Inquiry’s warning to Kim about having to answer before the ICC for crimes against humanity? If not, the US looks like it supports the Chinese opinion, expressed by a foreign ministry spokeswoman, that massive human rights violations are not a proper subject for an international court.
(I recommend three excellent arguments for an engagement policy: Walter C. Clemens, Jr., Getting to Yes in Korea; Miroslav Nincic, The Logic of Positive Engagement; and Chung-in Moon, The Sunshine Policy.)