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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.”