Independence, military-first, and socialism — these were the slogans under which, on Oct. 10, North Korea lavishly marked the 70th founding anniversary of its ruling party — the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) that ruled the northern half of the Korean peninsula with an iron fist for almost seven decades. Just a single word was uttered about the prospect of unification of the Korean nation along the lines of if we go or they come — the single-hearted unity and force of arms will be our only allies.
The current North Korean regime does not want Korean unification. We should make no mistake about that. Pyongyang has too many problems of its own: the backward and stagnant economy, the hollowing out military, growing international censure and diplomatic isolation. The recognition of this harsh reality forced its leadership to put on the back burner its long-cherished dream of “communizing” or “turning red” South Korea through the expansion of the Juch’e revolution by war to the southern half: the Kim regime is simply not able or willing to unify the peninsula even on the terms acceptable to the North.
Hence, the aging one party dictatorship wants to stay independent and be left alone so that it can continue to run its garrison state as it wishes and to rule the people of North Korea without any foreign interference. And if the sovereign government of the DPRK which officially represents the North Korean people as recognized by the United Nations and the international community publicly says no to the unification call, then any South Korean attempts to unify the peninsula without its consent may be interpreted as a raw land grab by an aggressive neighbor, no matter what moral, historical and national security justifications its territorial claims may be based on.
The DPRK is not a problem that will solve itself. The Republic of Korea and the United States must show leadership and be more creative than just to deter, neglect or intervene in North Korea. To deter and contain is tantamount to simply business as usual with no prospect for shaping change inside the North at this crucial time of transition. To neglect or disengage is equal to doing nothing, yielding the playing field to others at the expense of the allied interests on the peninsula. To intervene is potentially extremely costly, painful, and unnecessary, whatever the rationale for and/or method of intervention. The only right choice is to follow the Reagan model, vigorously engage and press hard the enemy across all lines of contact because proactive multifaceted engagement offers the most potential for effecting a fundamental change in the North’s behavior, although it may be politically difficult to advocate in Washington.
Opponents of engagement assert that all deals Washington has ever made with Pyongyang have been broken, nothing sticks, be it the last century’s Geneva Agreed Framework or the latest “Leap Day agreement.” But, this is almost natural, given the complete lack of mutual trust and deeply-seated insecurity on both sides. It does take a village and a leap of faith to bridge the existing divides between our countries. Disengagement and preaching to the choir have failed so far and will bear no fruit in the future.
In contrast, President Park’s hallmark “trust-politick” envisioning constant probing, direct negotiation and bargaining without any preconditions is the right approach to facilitate a new beginning in the long stalled South-North Korea relationship, because it is designed to develop mutual trust and respect, extend the shadow of the future and increase potential gains from cooperation while raising the price of provocations. The “trust-politick” is aimed at encouraging responsible behavior and frustrating threatening behavior in the strategic field, which is a good enough reason in its own right to justify engagement with Pyongyang.
North Korea is a learning, thinking, and increasingly open, receptive, and diverse system. We, too, need to learn to leverage the growing transparency, responsiveness, and multi-mindedness of the North Korean system by directly reaching out to Kim Jong Un and other important actors and communities a la President Obama’s new Cuba policy, enlarging a constituency for change inside the DPRK, accelerating our message distribution, and seeking to influence the new socio-economic forces and agents of change, especially the supreme leader. Even despite their cyber threats, we need to open the Internet doors widely to the North Koreans, not to block their access to the World Wide Web.
Seoul should encourage the emergence and growth of those agents of political change in the DPRK who are proud pan-Korean patriots, not xenophobic North Korean nationalists, and who are interested in reunification, not independence. The ROK government needs to offer a new “Northern Partnership” to the North Korean elites by combining its “trust-politick” diplomacy with the peninsular version of its traditional “Nord-politick” approach. The “Northern Partnership” is an alternative model of the common pan-Korean future to be achieved via the inter-Korean reconciliation and integration (a la the EU “Eastern Partnership” project), which should replace its current approach based on the avalanche-style unification by absorption.
The West embraced Gorbachev, and now the Soviet Union is no more. The West embraced Deng Xiaoping, and now China is a lot more capitalist and a lot less communist. We need to “Cubify” (apply our new Cuba model to) North Korea and “Gorbify” Kim Jong Un, not blockade it and vilify him. It is in the interest of the ROK and United States to relieve the pressure off Pyongyang and energetically engage its new leadership in order to take away any justification for their siege mentality. We need to find a way to shape Mr. Kim’s new thinking and guide his behavior toward better ends. Seoul and Washington should seek to exploit the new opportunities presented by Kim Jong Un’s thaw while mitigating the associated geopolitical risks and uncertainties. It is springtime in Pyongyang, albeit not of the Arab flavor, and it will be a shame if the allied blockade and disengagement from North Korea at this crucial juncture were to delay reunification, freeze inter-Korean relations, and result in a return of cold winter in the North.
Whether it is “principled” or “tailored” or “proportionate” engagement (i.e., current buzzwords in town) is not that important as long as we engage the North’s supreme leader directly, enticing him to more responsive and responsible behavior. Kim Jong Un keeps surprising us. He keeps raising the bar and public expectations. We need to stun, outsmart, and “do Cuba” on Mr. Kim, embracing him, not just standing there with an open fist or poking him in the eye. And, if we are able to Gorbify Kim Jong Un, to offer the North Korean elites something more than just kangaroo trials and re-education camps in the post-unification Korea, to give the North Korean “core class” a meaningful stake in reconciliation and association with the South, then only time will tell whether there will be an independent and sovereign North Korea or not at the end of the engagement road.
It is in the national interest of the Republic of Korea and the United States to vigorously engage the DPRK now in order to eliminate the growing threat posed by its nuclear weapons, missiles, and cyber arms and to expedite the fulfillment of the long-cherished dream of the South and North Korean peoples and America’s ultimate strategic objective in Korea — peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula on the terms acceptable to the entire Korean people.
• Alexandre Mansourov is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute in The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also CEO of Great Falls Solutions International, LLC.