Time for a bold moveNorth Korea’s recent proposal for high-level talks between Pyongyang and Washington was rejected by both Washington and Seoul. During her telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, President Park Geun-hye said, “Talking to the North for the sake of talk will only buy the North more time to build up its nuclear weapons.” The United States also said a dialogue was impossible unless the North demonstrates its intention to denuclearize with concrete actions, not words. Until now, North Korea has repeated a pattern of agreement, reward, provocation and return to nuclear negotiations while at the same time stepping up its nuclear capabilities. Both the conservatives and liberals agreed on this analysis. Seoul and Washington’s firm responses to Pyongyang are rooted in their own experiences with the recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang.
A former senior Unification Ministry official recently said, “There can be an excellent answer to the unification or North Korean nuclear issues, but there is no correct answer.” That is true. Although elite officials and academics from around the world have tried to approach these issues from just about every angle, the outcome was never very satisfactory. During the North’s Arduous March — as it calls the floods and famines of the mid-1990s — the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency testified before Congress in February 1996 that he saw a high possibility of the North Korean leadership collapsing. Other experts agreed, but the North Korean leadership is alive and well today. In 1992, The Economist published an article predicting that the two Koreas would be unified by 2000. I also have written articles with assertions that are embarrassing to look back on today.
Such a phenomenon is caused by the unpredictable, peculiar nature of North Korea. It is a country where countless people have died of hunger, but no major protest took place against the regime. Instead, the people wept and wailed when their leader died. It’s a country that is hard to explain or even imagine from the perspective of a liberal democracy.
Experts use imaginative terms such as “theocracy” or a “guerilla country” to explain the North, but there is no simple description of the North Korean regime. And it’s natural that the Western world has different perceptions and approaches to the North. Even top officials who worked together in the Ministry of Unification during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations present different and conflicting opinions about North Korea today. One says the idea of ending the Cold War confrontation on the Korean Peninsula by having diplomatic ties between Washington and Pyongyang and Tokyo and Pyongyang, and the replacement of the Korean War armistice with a peace agreement, has lost its effectiveness because of the North’s possession of nuclear weapons. He said unification is the only solution to such a nuclear crisis, and pressure on the North must be strengthened to induce the collapse of the North Korean regime. Another official said a policy of engagement cannot resolve all the problems, but at the same time hardline policies will go nowhere considering the peculiar nature of the North Korean regime. He said a negotiation to guarantee the North’s regime’s safety must take place before Pyongyang improves its nuclear capabilities any further.
I hope the recent responses of Seoul and Washington to the North’s talks proposal become the “correct answer.” I also hope Pyongyang stops its nuclear and missile tests voluntarily and agrees to accept inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. I hope for a virtuous cycle in which the North and the United States have low-level talks and the two Koreas have a governmental dialogue to resolve the nuclear issues.
If the North does not act that way, a secret plan also needs to be prepared. Seoul cannot simply say throughout Park’s presidency that “talks for the sake of talks cannot be allowed.” This doesn’t mean we must accept all demands of the North. Its National Defense Commission’s proposal of high-level talks with America contained various contradictions. Pyongyang still believes that Seoul and Washington won’t do anything even if it insults them. There’s a need to pressure the North further. Since the North has changed its approach from provocation to dialogue, a strategic plan needs to be devised to induce the North to sit at the negotiating table.
Obama told Park the message of Chinese President Xi Jinping that China wants to resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue. He probably was reminding Park about China’s basic stance toward the peninsula. Park once said, “If North Korea does not change, we must not sit with folded arms, but we must cooperate with the international community consistently to bring about changes from the North. That is the Korean Peninsula trust process.” For the North to let down its guard and sit at the negotiating table, South Korea must play the role of a lighthouse to persuade Washington and Beijing to work toward the “correct answer.” And that lighthouse can only be turned on when the South has an intention to devise a daring and bold strategy like U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in the 1970s.