By Daniel Pinkston (@dpinkston)
When tensions were rising on the Korean peninsula last March and April, some people recommended scaling back or cancelling U.S.-ROK combined military exercises and substituting diplomatic engagement for military deterrence. Some activists and scholars consistently advocate “engagement” as the solution for a multitude of North Korea problems and challenges, including denuclearisation and arms control, confidence-building, food insecurity, and economic development. However, engagement comes in different forms and must be selective to be effective – selective in terms of both methods and timing.
First the environment must be conducive to dialog. The bellicose period in March and early April did not offer such an environment. But when the DPRK’s coercive bargaining game ran out of steam in mid April, Pyongyang turned to its version of a “charm offensive” and proposed all sorts of talks. The switchover occurred as talk of war turned to a “festive atmosphere surrounding the Day of the Sun [Kim Il-sung’s birthday]”. On 16 April, the spokesman for the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Supreme Command issued an ultimatum to South Korea that included threats of military action against the South, but the spokesman concluded by saying, “If the puppet authorities truly want dialogue and negotiations, they should apologise for all anti-DPRK hostile acts, big and small, and show the compatriots their will to stop all these acts in practice”.
By DPRK standards, this was a call for dialog, as was Pyongyang’s decision to blame Seoul for the shutdown of the joint North-South Kaesŏng Industrial Complex (KIC). A spokesman for the General Bureau for Central Guidance to the Development of the Kaesŏng Special Zone, which manages KIC for the DPRK side, announced on 15 May that the future of the KIC depended upon the ROK’s attitude.
The DPRK’s push for diplomacy began in earnest when special envoy Ch’oe Ryong-hae led a major delegation to Beijing on 22 May. Pyongyang sought to normalise relations with Beijing and the international community under the condition that the DPRK be recognised as a “nuclear state” as codified in the DPRK constitution and legislation passed by the Supreme People’s Assembly on 1 April 2013. As Ch’oe was in Beijing, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party, declared that “the U.S. needs to face the reality and coexist with a nuclear-armed DPRK” and that “the new strategic line of nuclear and economic development (竝進路線; or pyŏngjin line) is essential to protect the DPRK’s dignity and sovereignty”. This rhetoric fell flat in Beijing as President Xi told Ch’oe that the DPRK must fulfill its denuclearisation commitments. One day after Ch’oe’s return from Beijing, the National Defence Commission’s Policy Department issued a blistering rebuke of ROK President Park for having criticised the North’s pyŏngjin line, saying her remarks were “reckless bluster that hurt the dignity of the DPRK leadership”. The statement concluded with a chilling admonition that Park “should seriously recollect why the yusin dictator [her father] was shot to death”.
But just as inter-Korean relations appeared to be heading for a long-term freeze, Pyongyang’s rhetoric changed on 6 June when the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) issued a conciliatory statement proposing inter-Korean talks for joint celebrations to mark the anniversary of the 15 June 2000 North-South summit, in addition to talks to normalise operations at KIC and the Mt. Kŭmgang tourism zone. The CPRK also offered to hold talks on humanitarian issues, including separated families, which Seoul can never ignore. After several rounds of talks, the two sides finally reached a preliminary agreement on 14 August, the day before Liberation Day, a national holiday in both Koreas, to reopen KIC.
This raised hopes that the two sides now will be able to cooperate in other areas. The agreement is a positive development but as Marc Noland points out, several obstacles remain and no date has been set to reopen KIC. Nevertheless, if inter-Korean relations improve significantly, it could open opportunities for the international community to engage the DPRK as well.
Engagement is a means to an end and different types carry different risks and opportunities. In general, engagement can be divided into three broad categories: official governmental dialog; economic transactions; and private non-economic exchanges, which include interactions in academics, culture, art, music, and sports.
Governmental dialog is necessary to conclude inter-state agreements that enable governments to pursue cooperation across all sorts of issue areas such as international security, communications and transportation, finance, trade, environmental protection, and disaster relief to name a few. Inter-governmental agreements also reduce transactions costs for economic and private exchanges; for example, free trade agreements between governments reduce foreign market barriers for private firms. Recent inter-Korean dialog on the restart of economic cooperation at KIC and Mt. Kŭmgang is an example of official engagement to reach governmental agreements necessary for economic cooperation.
Official dialog, whether in the Six-Party Talks or some other format, will be necessary to denuclearise the Korean peninsula and to address a multitude of regional security concerns. However, returning to official dialog now would come with risks. The DPRK could well use talks exclusively towards its goal of international recognition as a nuclear state—the DPRK’s aspiration according to sŏn’gun ideology and the pyŏngjin line. Governments must be very cautious when engaging the DPRK.
Economic engagement can lead to interdependence and theoretically reduce the likelihood of inter-state conflict. Economic exchanges – except under colonialism or some other coercion—are beneficial to both parties, and economic cooperation has the potential to transform the identities and interests of firms and governments through a socialization process.
In the ROK, the liberal Roh Mu-hyŏn government and the conservative Park Geun-hye government both have viewed a regional economic community, eventually to include North Korea, as a linchpin in building peace and prosperity for Northeast Asia. But it is uncertain whether a community would transform the identities and political interests of actors, particularly in the short and medium term. Unless the DPRK changes it state ideology and strategy, economic engagement and normal economic relations would validate the pyŏngjin line and the DPRK leadership would have no incentive to abandon its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Furthermore, trade and investment with the DPRK enable the Korean Workers Party to skim money for Office 39, which controls the funds that support the Kim family political machine.
That leaves private noneconomic interactions. Such exchanges do not carry the geopolitical baggage of intergovernmental dialog and provide no funds to the Korean Workers Party. Academic exchanges, particularly programs that permit North Koreans to study abroad, expose North Korean intellectuals to new ideas. Interactions with foreigners for cultural and sports exchanges also demonstrate that foreigners are not wicked imperialists seeking to invade or strangle the DPRK, as state media and propaganda claim daily.
Academic and cultural exchanges cannot deliver the governmental agreements necessary to resolve the outstanding security problems on the Korean peninsula. Their immediate impact is difficult to measure, but the risks are much lower than in other types of engagement, and private noneconomic engagement includes socialization in a nonthreatening way that can influence thinking, identity and interests over time. The result might not be as quick as we desire, but it almost certainly will be better than the results of completely isolating the North Korean people.