I still recall the difficulty that I faced, as South Korea’s foreign minister, in convincing Bush administration policymakers to negotiate with North Korea instead of merely applying pressure and waiting for the North to capitulate.
Back then, North Korea was restarting its Yongbyon nuclear facility and producing plutonium, thus strengthening its bargaining position vis-a-vis the US. Precious time was squandered before North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.
Though Bush shifted his policy toward bilateral negotiations with the North a few months later, the Kim regime had become much more obstinate.
Indeed, North Korea’s behavior has since become even more volatile. Its sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 were unprecedented, and raised inter-Korean tensions to their highest level in decades.
Today, following the North’s third nuclear test, we seem to have entered the most precarious stage yet, with the regime declaring that it will never surrender its nuclear option. So, what should be done?
The first option should be deterrence of further aggression through diplomacy. However, achieving diplomatic deterrence will depend on China’s cooperation, and this requires that China’s vital national-security interests be recognized. China fears not only the social and economic consequences of a North Korean implosion, but also the strategic consequences of reunification — in particular, that the US military, through its alliance with South Korea, would gain access to territory on its border.
A mere statement by the US that it has no intention to press this military advantage will not assuage China’s fears. Chinese leaders recall that the US promised then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev that German reunification and democratic transition in Eastern Europe would not mean eastward expansion of NATO.
So a more concrete undertaking, one that preserves South Korea’s bedrock security concerns, is needed. Only after its security is assured will China free itself from complicity in North Korean brinkmanship and be better able to control the North’s behavior.
However, Chinese cooperation, though necessary, will not resolve the North Korea problem on its own. A comprehensive approach must recognize the speed of internal change, especially in the minds of ordinary North Koreans.
Simply put, North Koreans are not as isolated as they once were, and have a growing appreciation of their impoverishment, owing primarily to greater trade and closer connections with booming China.
This internal change needs to be encouraged, because it will prove more effective than external pressure in influencing the regime’s behavior. However, such encouragement must be undertaken in ways that do not incite the North’s fears of being destroyed by indirect means. South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s recent proposal to provide humanitarian assistance despite the recent spike in tension, is a start in the right direction.
The lives of ordinary North Koreans matter as much as the security of North Korea’s neighbors. A comprehensive approach is required — one that focuses as much on the human dimension as on the security dimension. It remains to be seen whether this approach requires more foresight and courage than today’s political leaders in South Korea, the West and China can muster.