[Viewpoint] New U.S. thinking needed on N. Korea

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[Viewpoint] New U.S. thinking needed on N. Korea

Earlier this month, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) published an independent task force report, “U.S. Policy Toward the Korean Peninsula.”

The list of nearly two dozen contributors and reviewers reads like a “Who’s Who” among U.S. North Korean watchers, including Victor Cha, Charles Curtis, Nicholas Eberstadt, Robert Gallucci, Marcus Noland, Don Oberdorfer, Evans Revere and Scott Snyder.

What I found remarkable, even a bit exasperating, was how unremarkable the white paper stated what is essentially the same old hat of U.S. foreign policy toward North Korea.

To give you an example, the crux of the paper lays out four options: (1) explicit acquiescence of North Korea as a nuclear state, (2) containment and management of the status quo, (3) a rollback to denuclearization as was attempted by the Clinton administration, and (4) regime change. The report dismisses options No. 1 and 4, looks at No. 2 as being the current Obama policy, and recommends No. 3 as an aggressive “carrots and sticks” approach to force Pyongyang back to the six-party talks.

While the paper delineates options No. 2 and 3, all No. 3 really is is option No. 2 with more aggressive diplomacy; whereas one may argue that option No. 2 is a laid-back version of No. 3. In other words, what we have among the four options are two impractical extremes in either accepting North Korea as a nuclear power or working toward removing the current regime.

The other two familiar options seem more like a feckless Twiddledee and Twiddledum, separated only by differences in attitude. And to be fair, some of the above-named signatories expressed skepticism in the report’s addendum that option No. 3, a rollback, is likely to succeed.

What I find depressing in these findings seems to be the feeble best that this group of highly intelligent and experienced intellectuals can formulate. I highlight this report only because of the prestige that surrounds the CFR and the reputations of the authors. I naturally wonder if this is the best the U.S. can do.

The problem is that the whole exercise, including the report’s four U.S. policy options, is essentially formulated from an American perspective without adequate regard as to how the North Koreans view the same matters.

Not that I have any sympathy for Pyongyang, but the report reeks of American arrogance in that it takes a solid, singular view of the world and entertains only options that jive with a singular all-American perspective.

Rather, I would like to see the same intellectuals - or perhaps others of similar caliber - consider the same matter in a four-step approach before setting out foreign policy options:

(1) Specifically, there needs to be serious consideration of how the North Koreans view current realities - without caveats representing the American perspective.

(2) Using the North Korean viewpoint as a starting point rather than a side perspective, American policy makers need to consider how the North Korean perspective translates into what the North Korean leadership feels, thinks, fears and hopes.

(3) Given Pyongyang’s perspective, together with their emotional and intellectual interpretation of the same, American policy makers should ponder what the fundamental needs of the Pyongyang regime are - again, exclusively from the North Korean perspective.

(4) Finally, given the first three considerations - North Korean perspectives, interpretations and requirements, the Americans should look at the current set of demands made by North Korea, determining which are significant enough to be addressed in earnest and which are likely being made for essentially propaganda purposes.

Considering that something like the above may not have been done so far, it is difficult to see how dissimilar or comparable the conclusions derived from this kind of analysis may be with those the CFR reports distilled.

But even if the options and considerations from my suggested framework end up being similar to those of the CFR, how U.S. diplomats approach North Korea could be refreshingly different if the positioning of initiatives is more empathetic than what we have seen so far.

Please understand that I’m not advocating some kind of “touchy-feely” form of diplomacy. Empathy can be starkly different from sympathy. But at least with empathy there is less chance of both sides talking past each other.

Moreover, with this kind of empathetic consideration, new options may be possibly discovered - either unilaterally or, conceivably, through discussions with Pyongyang.

But in any case, to restate my disappointment, I’m getting tired of reading and hearing the same cast of characters pontificating off the same tried and failed platform.

The fact old wine has been poured yet again into a new bottle by the CFR is unimpressive.

For all the fees and salaries this crowd pulls down, they really should have done a much better job than what they produced earlier this month.

We already have a good idea of what doesn’t work. Alternative, creative strategies are already past due.


*The writer is president of Soft Landing Consulting and vice president of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

by Tom Coyner

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