Redefining “Engagement” with North Korea

Recent inter-Korean talks, failed attempts to send American ambassadors to the
North to lobby on Kenneth Bae’s behalf, the media maelstrom surrounding
Dennis Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy”… all highlight the need to
reevaluate our approach to “engaging North Korea.”

Despite
last week’s second round of North-South talks ending in a three-point
agreement, a history of political stalemate and animosity casts doubt
over whether officials are willing to take definitive steps to move
forward. If so, h
ow can
real momentum be achieved?  Embracing
multifaceted forms of engagement that go beyond bilateral talks and target the
people of North Korea may be one solution.

A seminar
held last Friday explored this very topic. “
North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies,” which was organized by the Arirang and Asia Institutes, presented diverse ways to connect with North Korea and the North Korean people. The event featured an
expert panel and an open discussion led by Sokeel Park, the head of research
and strategy for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK); Reverend Tim Peters, the director
of Helping Hands Korea; Pyongyang Project co-founder Matthew Reichel; and
retired General Sohn Changrae, a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

Two types
of basic strategy for engaging with North Korea are possible, Park pointed out;
dialogue through official governmental channels and that through
unofficial ones. While official measures tend to be restricted to bilateral
talks, unofficial forms of engagement can actually take on a variety of forms,
including tourism, foreign media, border trade, NGO work, and interpersonal
dialogue between refugees and family members who remain in the North.

Border
crossers and other key players within North Korea are already making contact
with the outside world. In this number are defectors and North Koreans
permitted to travel: traders, embassy workers or those on personal business.
Young elites, university students and tour guides in the North also have a
privileged position whereby they have access, however limited, to information
from the outside world.

As
Matthew Reichel said on Friday, “Engagement is a strategy to empower the
structural base and create pressure for change. Not all engagement is equal and
not all ethical.” The key focus, then, must be on creating a balanced approach; empowering some of the North Korean people who will be at the forefront of
change while also engaging with issues that require immediate assistance.

As Tim
Peters urged, a “cost-benefit analysis” is essential when formulating an
engagement strategy; one that weighs the benefits and risks for all North
Koreans, but also considers the most needy.

Given the
track record of inter-Korean political stalemate, there may not be much hope
for sustainable change through official channels, and nor do such approaches
engage directly with those in need (though they may eventually lead to
assistance). Pyongyang’s rejection of the UN
Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on North Korean human rights abuses
highlights this disparity. To combat this, Park urged individuals, NGOs,
and other organizations and political actors to deal in “latent
capacity building.”

“Social
change is driven by hot spots of change,” he asserted. Through a deeper
understanding of the subtler dynamics within the Korean population, such
potential “hot spots” might be anticipated.

Engagement
is two-pronged and must be understood both in terms of human interaction and
engaging with urgent issues at hand. As many of the seminar attendees pointed
out, North Korea is facing a vast range of challenges over which engagement
could prove productive; from the depletion of its biodiversity and growing
desertification to issues surrounding the export of labor forces overseas. The
long-term consequences of these issues pose as real a threat to North Korea as
its nuclear weapons program, and should thus be taken into consideration when
looking at the country as a whole.

South
Korea and the international community must begin to cooperate on a broader
spectrum of North Korean issues. This can only occur when the international
community begins to recognize the North’s complexity. As was pointed out by an
audience member, North Korea’s view of the world has evolved
through limited engagement with the outside, both past and present. The outside
world’s view of the North, however, remains problematically static.

A refined
and nuanced engagement strategy will require a shift in perception on the part
of the international community.  Only
when international actors begin to understand the vast swathe of challenges faced by the regime,
from security to human rights to the environment, can effective engagement strategies begin to take shape. The North Korean people are calling.

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