Time for dialogue with the North

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Time for dialogue with the North

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Peter Kim Laustsen

North Korea’s three tests of nuclear devices and continuing tests of long- and short-range missiles have scuttled the Six-Party talks and damaged bilateral relations both with South Korea and the United States even further. The North declares that the world should recognize it as a nuclear weapons state and that neither its weapons nor relevant programs are negotiable. On the other hand, both South Korea and the United States have stated several times that a precondition for any negotiations is that the North take sincere, irreversible and verifiable steps toward denuclearization. All in all, a deadlock exists, as all parties’ preconditions are incompatible with each other.

In March, the Commission of Inquiry under the UN Human Rights Council published its report on the human rights situation in North Korea. The commission concluded that systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights occur and that these violations are “not mere excesses of the state; they are essential components of a political system.” The criticism was directed at the Pyongyang regime, its ideology and leadership.

Of course, both the nuclear and human rights issues are huge and unavoidable challenges that must be addressed. The nuclear issue is pressing because the unacceptable proliferation of nuclear knowledge, technology and weapons undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and creates security challenges and instability. The human rights issue needs attention because of the enormous human suffering it entails. However, the question is how to approach these challenges in order to secure progress.

I am not arguing that North Korea should be rewarded for its internal or external behavior. However, I am arguing that a bolder - and perhaps riskier - approach might pay off. Arguably, it is also a more pragmatic approach that takes reality into account. The present situation - the continuing provocations from North Korea along with their ever-present risk of escalation, misunderstandings and miscalculation - cannot endure. That uncertainty must be mitigated. The risk, of course, is that Pyongyang will reverse its position once again after receiving concessions, but the alternative might well be the status quo for a long time to come.

Could South Korea and the United States soften their approach to the North’s nuclear ambitions, and could several of the issues be decoupled and handled in separate negotiations? That would require South Korea and the United States to at least tacitly accept a nuclear status quo, while the DPRK agrees to a complete freeze on its nuclear and missile activities. This could potentially remove the major obstacle to progress in several areas and create a foundation for further negotiations, despite worries in South Korea that could, however, be mitigated by emphasizing the U.S. security guarantee.

The first step could be dialogue on a road map, delegation levels, lines of communication, issues to be discussed, and so forth. The parties could also consider discussing steps to build trust and confidence such as not using aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and B-2 bombers during the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises, ending offshore provocations like firing artillery and rockets and halting attacks on computer networks. Of course, the military exercises should not be canceled, but they could be contained at a level that might avoid an escalation of tension. Many broken agreements and promises over time have deepened mistrust between the parties - and trust will have to be rebuilt and consolidated in order to create a favorable environment for negotiations.

Regarding the human rights issue, I believe North Korea’s rejection of the UN report and its content might be based on the linkage of human rights violations to the regime, thus criticizing its ideology and leadership. Although the report’s horrific findings are likely to be true, the explicit connection of the violations to the regime undermines the domestic and international legitimacy of North Korea. Such a perceived threat cannot be ignored by regime guardians and will be rejected unconditionally.

Could the UN restart the dialogue on human rights by separating human rights from ideology, while maintaining the objective of creating an environment for negotiation and improving the human rights situation North Korea? I acknowledge that the government in the North puts a premium on ensuring effective control and preventing the emergence of political opposition - and in its view this requires maintaining the current human rights policy. But a decoupling may be a more realistic way of initiating a dialogue on human rights issues, which may lead to improved living conditions and less suffering.

At the end of the day, peace on the Korean Peninsula should be desirable for all parties. Sadly, not much progress has been achieved since the end of the Korean War. Luckily, the South Korean society and state are prosperous, modern and mature. One can only hope that South Korea, together with the United States, can maneuver in a way that allows for substantial negotiations with North Korea to be initiated and trust to be built.

*The author is the acting director of the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College, Copenhagen, Denmark.

BY Peter Kim Laustsen

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