Considering the overwhelming margin by which a UN General Assembly committee voted on November 18 to condemn North Korea for human-rights violations, one might think that establishing a stable relationship with that regime is a fruitless enterprise. The vote (111-19 with 55 abstentions) sends the resolution to the General Assembly as a whole and then, if approved, on to the UN Security Council.
But several recent developments raise the possibility that North Korea’s leaders are rethinking their international strategy—and providing an opportunity for engagement. One is the release in two stages of three Americans held prisoner there. Kim Jong-un, according to North Korean sources, personally ordered the initial release, and no doubt also the second after James R. Clapper, Jr., President Obama’s director for national intelligence, traveled to Pyongyang. Second, North Korea is talking with Japan about its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, a very sensitive political issue in Japan whose resolution is central to resumption of Japanese aid. Third is the unexpected visit of senior North Korean officials to the Asian Games held at Incheon, South Korea, which was clearly intended to signal a desire to revitalize North-South diplomacy.
Fourth is the DPRK regime’s openly defensive response to the debate at the UN over North Korea’s human-rights situation. The basis for the debate was a report of the UN Commission of Inquiry last February that held the DPRK leadership responsible for a wide range of deplorable and systematic violations, including torture, forced labor, arbitrary arrests, and politically motivated arrests without trial (www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/Documents.aspx).
The highlight of the DPRK’s public defense against these charges was the unusual appearance of its UN ambassador, Jang Il-hun, at the Council of Foreign Relations on October 20. In his response to questions, the ambassador, as expected, insisted that no political prisoner camps “of any kind” existed in the DPRK. There are only ordinary prisons as in the US. “In my country, we don’t even know the term political prisoners.” He said the “hostile policy of the US” was responsible for lack of improvement in human rights, for efforts at the UN to bring DPRK leaders to justice on “fictitious” grounds, and for promoting regime change in the North. However, Jang did say Pyongyang was willing to “have a human rights dialogue” with the European Union and “enter into technical cooperation with the UN Office for Human Rights Commission (transcript at www.cfr.org/north-korea/ambassador-jang-il-hun-human-rights-north-korea/p33642). That prospect now seems dead in the water.
Besides these fairly high-profile actions, we should keep in mind more ordinary activities that belie the idea that North Korea is insulating itself. It is no longer the “hermit kingdom.” Increasing numbers of North Koreans are going abroad for training and touring. North Korean diplomats are active in Europe and Russia. Foreign educators are leading medical and science and technology training in the DPRK. There is a sense among experts that the economic system is becoming more open and that the country’s economic performance, for example with respect to food production, is improving.
Before the General Assembly resolution came to a vote, a North Korean representative warned that if it passed, his country would have no choice but to conduct further nuclear-weapon tests. China and Russia, which voted against the resolution, now face two unpleasant tasks: persuading the North not to incite new UN sanctions by conducting another nuclear test, and casting a veto to prevent the Security Council from referring the North Korea case to the International Criminal Court, which would consider prosecuting Kim Jong-un and colleagues for crimes against humanity.
Outsiders are right to demand that North Korean officials be called to account. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a dictatorship that runs a horrendous gulag. But the recent developments described above, though extremely modest, suggest that the DPRK may be testing the waters, and that engaging it in serious dialogue is worth trying notwithstanding its atrocious human-rights record. The real problem is not North Korean unwillingness to talk; it has already indicated its preparedness to reenter the Six-Party Talks on its nuclear weapons, a position China strongly supports. But the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be listening; it is sticking to the tired formula of “strategic patience” and no talks until the North agrees to verifiable nuclear disarmament. Those are predictable nonstarters for Pyongyang.
Moreover, US officials continue to operate in the dark when it comes to North Korea. The administration does not allow them to visit the North—the Clapper assignment is a special case—nor does it allow North Korean officials outside a 25-mile perimeter from UN Headquarters in New York. What this means is an analytical deficit and a gratuitous insult to North Korean sovereignty. The analytical deficit must somehow be remedied by defectors’ and satellite observations—hardly the best sources for understanding North Korean political, economic, or social policy, as we saw most recently with all the wild speculation about the whereabouts of Kim Jong-un. Limiting North Koreans’ travel not only deprives them of opportunities to interact with US audiences; it tells them that they are justified in their jaundiced view of the US government.
When Washington proposed to send a senior State Department official to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of two imprisoned Americans, is it any wonder that he was (twice) rejected? The North Koreans want acknowledgment of their country’s legitimacy, not second-class treatment—hence, someone of the stature of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. James Clapper evidently filled the bill because he was the President’s personal emissary. Clapper brought the two Americans home, creating a potential opening for a US move.
Yet Obama dismissed the prisoner release as a “small gesture,” and gave no indication that he would make a small gesture in return. Yet that is exactly what he should do. Potential opportunities for a breakthrough with North Korea don’t come along very often, and the available evidence suggests that North Korea is sending a message, not reacting to foreign pressure. (See Frank Jannuzi’s article at http://38north.org/2014/11/fjannuzi110914/.) It’s time for the US to do the sensible thing, respond in a meaningful way to Pyongyang, and test whether or not the North Koreans are actually having a coming-out party.
Postscript on engagement: The same goes for US relations with Iran and Cuba. News reports indicate that the US and its negotiating partners are close to a nuclear agreement with Iran, but also that resistance is keen among right-wing members of Congress (and their Iranian counterparts). To his credit, President Obama reportedly has sent a letter to the Ayatollah Khamenei that proposes areas for future cooperation, starting with combating ISIS, once the nuclear issue is resolved. (See Trita Parsi’s excellent analysis at www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/11/07/pen_palling_with_the_ayatollah_obama_letter_iran_khamenei?utm_content=bufferab8da&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer.) Cuba is another opportunity for engagement, though there too anti-Castro forces in and outside Congress, and hardliners in Havana, will go to great lengths to undermine any prospective deal. Fidel Castro’s unusual article in Granma, the official newspaper, responding to a New York Times editorial that proposed normalizing relations with Cuba, suggests avenues of cooperation worth talking about (www.nytimes.com/2014/10/15/opinion/still-pondering-us-cuba-relations-fidel-castro-responds.html). The Times editorial board has added some positive ideas while chronicling a recent history of abject US failures at sabotage in Cuba in the name of improving conditions there (www.nytimes.com/2014/11/10/opinion/in-cuba-misadventures-in-regime-change.html).