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Realists, Dreamers and Punishers: The Dilemmas of Engagement with North Korea

Realists about North Korea like Professor Andrei Lankov have repeatedly argued the case for specific and limited types of engagement with the country. In Invest in N.Korea now to invest in unification later he again makes a clear and compelling case and shows why this is such an important and necessary policy.

When he argues that such engagement “can produce a great impact on North Korea’s future, either facilitating its slow but benevolent evolution, or making its collapse less painful for North Koreans and the outside world,” he is being a Realist, not a Dreamer.

The Dreamers believe that unification will arrive through peaceful negotiation. The Realists and the Punishers have no clue when and how unification will come but they agree on one thing: it is unlikely to happen the Dreamers’ way.

That is the backdrop to the narrative in Lankov’s follow-up article, No hope for N.Korean development programs, in which he warns that the “[s]incere but misguided determination to punish Pyongyang dooms beneficial exchanges.”

He notes that the Punishers, not the Realists, are in the ascendant about what to do with North Korea and this has damaging long-term consequences for unification, however and whenever it might take place. This latest article was written just before North Korea claimed that it had carried out a test explosion of a hydrogen bomb. If anything, that event strengthens the case for the policies that Professor Lankov puts forward while pushing any chance of their being implemented into the distant future.

The Punishers, such as America and South Korea, still follow their “ideologically determined and practically harmful extreme” of the hard-line belief in sanctions and pressure on North Korea. The other players, China, Japan, Russia and Europe seem hardly able or willing to tilt the balance in favour of the Realists.

Lankov notes that neither China nor Russia are known to be interested in investing in projects that do not bring immediate economic benefit. The European Union could take a more active approach, he suggests, but acknowledges that in reality the EU is not all that interested in a policy of low-level engagement with North Korea. When the EU has major problems with countries much nearer home, it perhaps sees North Korea as a “small country, far away”. That view may be understandable but Lankov warns that “maintaining stability or managing instability in Korea is in everybody’s interests.” Europe shouldn’t turn its back on engagement with North Korea just because the stakes are much lower than those for South Korea, China and US, he says.

What the Punishers are doing to North Korea, or preventing being done in that country, will have its grim consequences. Lankov’s conclusion about this is pessimistic if not bordering on the apocalyptic:

“A North Korean collapse might happen, and if it does, it will become a massive economic shock and social disaster. Policies [of limited engagement] that might make a difference, by mitigating the aftershocks, will be implemented partially at best, if at all, and in all likelihood, all parties concerned are likely to face North Korean collapse when/if it comes head-on, at full speed.”

Brave Steps Needed to End DPRK Isolation

This article was first posted on the 29th April 2014 in East Asia Forum
The UN report on human rights in North Korea received huge coverage when it was released in February this year. The report recounts the testimonies of many North Koreans who have escaped from the DPRK — detailing frequent human rights abuses. Most of the details were already known to Korea watchers as a result of South Korean and international human rights organisations’ diligent work. But the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) has provided an unprecedented platform from which to discuss the issue of human rights abuse in North Korea — and there are hopes that this will compel the international community to take concrete actions to improve North Korea’s human rights situation.The ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’ (Section VII) of the report is an insightful and brave list of proposed action points. It is brave because many of the recommendations are in sharp contrast to the current policies toward the DPRK being pursued by the international community. They also contradict the thinking of the orthodox North Korean human rights lobby which has promoted sanctioning and isolation.Among its recommendations, the COI report instead calls for ‘the promotion of incremental change through more people-to-people contacts’ in areas including ‘science, sports, good governance and economic development’ to ‘provide citizens of the DPRK with opportunities to exchange information and be exposed to experiences outside their home country’. In pursuit of that goal the report asks countries to remove obstacles such as visa bans and travel restrictions in all but exceptional cases. Further, it supports the provision of humanitarian assistance and criticises the withholding of humanitarian aid as a tool to impose economic or political pressure on the DPRK, while recognising the importance of strong monitoring systems. These latter aspects of the recommendations are explicitly direct and refreshingly welcome in a debate that has long searched for agreement about how to deal with North Korea.

A striking part of the recommendation section is its emphasis on the international community’s responsibility to resolve the North Korean human rights problem.

While assigning full culpability to the DPRK regime for the abuses and suffering of the North Korean population, it reminds the international community — in the rather forthright tone often associated with the chief author and former judge Michael Kirby — that ‘the international community must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the DPRK from crimes against humanity … in the light of the role played by [it] … (and by the great powers in particular) in the division of the Korean peninsula and because of the unresolved legacy of the Korean War’. That includes Australia.

Australia did once play an important role in efforts to resolve tension on the Korean peninsula. Australia encouraged people-to-people contact through the presence of a DPRK Embassy in Canberra, and the hosted an economics training programme for North Korean bureaucrats at The Australian National University’s Crawford School. Since the embassy closed and the training programme ended, the Australian government — whether led by Labor or the Liberals — has shown little enthusiasm for supporting the reopening of these channels.

Of course some of the report’s other, wholly justified, recommendations will make it difficult to get the North’s agreement to participate in such programmes. These include: a call for the DPRK leadership to account for their actions to the International Criminal Court; openness and political reform inside the country; targeted sanctions against those responsible for crimes against humanity; and China to reverse its policy of refusing to recognise North Korean refugees and repatriating them.

So implementing the recommendations of this report will not be easy. The first step will be to encourage the human rights community to recognise and support the philosophy of bringing about change inside the DPRK through engagement rather than isolation. Even this step is fraught with difficulties. Kirby’s frequent public comparisons of the DPRK with horrors committed by Nazi Germany in the Holocaust are deeply unhelpful. And Amnesty International, whose excellent work has long detailed the abuses inside North Korea, recently questioned the planned visit of Britain’s Globe Theatre to take a Shakespeare play to the DPRK — a visit which is all about promoting people-to-people contacts in the spirit of the COI report recommendations.

Still, the recommendations in the report provide a long-awaited opportunity to revisit the international community’s strategy toward North Korea. Any strategy should, of course, include directly addressing the DPRK government’s human rights abuses. But it should not preclude engagement and exchange in other areas. Kirby’s report provides the international community with a plan for promoting social and political change in North Korea. Let us hope that the spotlight provided by the UN and public outrage will finally lead to the international community accepting ‘its responsibility to protect the people of the DPRK’.