[Seoul Lounge] Picking up the rocket’s pieces

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[Seoul Lounge] Picking up the rocket’s pieces

North Korea’s failed rocket launch accomplished the rarest of feats. The regime managed to simultaneously outrage the world and embarrass itself.

Unfortunately, this increases the likelihood that Pyongyang will undertake a nuclear test, which will trigger efforts to pass yet another UN Security Council resolution. I believe the only way to break out of this vicious cycle is to redouble our efforts to engage the North.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there would be a rocket launch or the chances that the third stage would actually work were quite low. The North’s first attempt in 1998 signaled Kim Jong-il’s re-emergence from four years of seclusion following his father’s death. The 2009 test marked Kim’s resurrection from his near-death experience in 2008. Celebrating founding father Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday and the coronation of his spitting-image grandson required only the best fireworks, even if they had to be launched from untested and incomplete facilities.

What made this third attempt different was that Pyongyang publicly admitted that the launch had failed. The herd of foreign journalists currently stomping through the country might have factored into the North’s decision, but a more likely reason is Pyongyang’s realization that more and more North Koreans are listening to banned foreign radio stations like Voice of America and several defector-run stations. Better to get out in front of the story than have the news spread by the “reptile” foreign media.

With the rocket failure and a comatose economy kept alive by China, Pyongyang may now be so desperate for an accomplishment that it could undertake a third nuclear test. The only silver lining would be that the North would use up that much more of one of its most precious resources: weapons-grade plutonium.

Our options for dealing with North Korea are never good, but hope springs eternal. Even if the UN Security Council were able to impose new sanctions, the existing sanctions regime is so strong and Beijing and Seoul’s willingness to tighten the economic noose around the North so weak that they would have little impact. A pre-emptive strike would be ineffective and could provoke a second Korean War. Finally, there is not a shred of evidence to support Victor Cha’s assertion in his new book that “the end is near.” If that were true, we could just sit back and wait for the North to collapse.

As difficult and frustrating as it may be, in the end we have no choice but to keep trying to engage the North. Human rights and humanitarian issues wouldn’t be a bad place to start. The release in Washington last week of the updated version of David Hawk’s path-breaking report “Hidden Gulag” provides a painful reminder of the hardships faced by countless North Koreans.

The food situation is no less acute. An estimated one-third of all North Korean children are malnourished. It was former U.S. President Ronald Reagan who once said, “A hungry child knows no politics.” No matter how much we dislike the regime, doing nothing should not be an option.

Fortunately, U.S. President Barack Obama appointed the first full-time North Korean human rights envoy, the able and charismatic Robert King. To the North’s credit, King was allowed to visit Pyongyang last May to conduct a humanitarian needs assessment and raise the world’s human rights concerns. Given that almost a year has passed, King could lead a new assessment team.

North Korea’s leaders have decided that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a rocket launch is more important than feeding their own people. Do we really want to turn our backs and deny North Koreans their most basic right if the regime agrees to strict monitoring of food delivery?

Indeed, we have an opportunity to demonstrate to the North Korean people that we care about them more than their own leaders do. How can North Koreans hate us if each sack of food or grain is emblazoned with the name of the country providing the assistance? Moreover, if what we really want is for North Korea to change its behavior, hungry people are in no position to demand changes from their government.

The North is often said to “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” By the same token, we must seize every opportunity to engage the North Korean people and show North Korea’s leaders that there is a non-threatening path to a better future.

Chairman Kim and his advisors need not look any further than to their friends in Burma to see the benefits of selecting the path of reform and openness. Otherwise, they risk going down the bloody path of another ally, Syria.


* The author is the Korea representative for the Asia Foundation.

by Peter Beck
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