[Viewpoint] Engage the North secretly, flexibly

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[Viewpoint] Engage the North secretly, flexibly

Amid preoccupations with other parts of the globe, tensions between North and South Korea have taken something of a backseat in recent months, at least in terms of American attention. This has led to minimal coverage of two stories that in fact are extremely important.

Late in March, a South Korean ship was suddenly sunk near the border with North Korea under very suspicious circumstances. Second, an American man, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, has been sentenced to eight years hard labor for illegally entering North Korea. He was arrested after crossing the North Korea-China border on Jan. 25.

According to South Korean press reports, he is an English-language teacher with strong Christian convictions, and has taken part in anti-North Korean protests in the South. This is the third recent case of Americans being held in North Korea. Two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, crossed the border in March 2009 and were arrested. They were sentenced to twelve years hard labor, but were released in August after an intervention from former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Robert Park, a Korean-American Christian evangelist who was arrested after entering the country on Christmas Day, had given a media interview in which he stated he wanted to force change in North Korean human rights conditions. He was released in February after telling North Korean state media that he had been wrong.

What is the best response to this disturbing set of events in the context of both North Korean nuclear weapons and its disintegrating economy? Seoul and Washington should initiate informal talks with North Korea, with no fixed policy agenda. Private talks, begun with no public announcement, are also justified because this might bring progress. This is how Washington achieved major arms control and diplomatic breakthroughs with Moscow and Beijing respectively during the Nixon administration.

Desperate economic conditions in the North are the prime incentive for Pyongyang. North Korea maintains troubled but continuing cooperation with South Korea regarding the future of the special industrial zone at Kaesong, which employs 38,000 workers. This productive zone in the impoverished North clearly is important.

South Korea can only gain from such an initiative. The Republic of Korea was once part of the group of lower-income nations, but that status has changed very dramatically in a brief period of time. Today South Korea ranks as the 13th largest economy in the world and for more than two decades has practiced turbulent but successful democracy. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon therefore personifies both developed and developing nations in an era when both dimensions appear to be merging.

In North Korea, the feudal practice of designating a male heir to authority over land and people has prevailed, at least for the moment. Yet simultaneously the same regime continues to recognize economic reality, at least cautiously. Just reducing the number of naive but well-meaning foreigners seized, and then abused, by Pyongyang would be important progress.

*The U.S. should initiate informal and private talks with North Korea without a fixed agenda.


By Arthur I. Cyr

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