Breaking North Korea’s patterns

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Breaking North Korea’s patterns


We have poor memories. The latest North Korean developments, the West’s responses and the DPRK watchers’ analyses are remarkably familiar, and yet the total is considered to be newsworthy.

North Korea’s actions are remarkably consistent, with other nations’ reactions following the same patterns. At least the analysts’ entertaining summations are somewhat updated to match current events. But overall, the fundamentals remain pretty much the same.

Traditionally, if one is looking for creative writing in a newspaper, the best section has been the sports page. Sports reporters are allowed greater freedom in describing and extrapolating on the news. Fortunately for us in Korea, we also have the North Korean articles. Beyond simply the facts, we can read what an event, such as the release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller, “really means” in DPRK diplomacy.

For example, Nicholas Eberstadt implies that Pyongyang is trying to breakout out of its over-dependency on China relations. By clearing its prisons of Americans, Pyongyang could be taking a forward step to work with the West rather than being so dependent upon Chinese economic aid.

In Washington, analysts are suggesting that Pyongyang leaders are fearful of the recent, highly critical UN report on human rights in North Korea that may eventually result in the leadership being charged with crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court. As a result, the Americans were freed. And here in Seoul, some scribes speculate that getting a U.S. spy chief to negotiate the two men’s release may be part of a long-term ploy by Pyongyang to force the U.S. government to officially deal with the DPRK on incrementally higher levels.

And so it goes … While often entertaining, but ultimately one is unsure what one is actually reading.

So, are we all truly caught in this somewhat amusing, but essentially unchanging paradigm? Perhaps we need to look to unconventional sources for inspiration after considering some common threads in American prisoner negotiations with Pyongyang.

As much as we may criticize the DPRK’s draconian laws and regulations, by now, the do’s and don’t’s of visiting North Korea are pretty well understood and visitors are routinely briefed before departing for Pyongyang. And in the cases of journalists, they are better aware than most people of the risks.

But look at which Americans end up in North Korean prison for which causes! At best they are naive, but one may more accurately regard them as acting recklessly foolish. They all must have had anxious moments about ever seeing America again. But during their escapades, these Americans must have had in the backs of their minds that Uncle Sam would eventually come to the rescue should things take a turn for the worse.

Remember that old refrain? “You can’t do that to me! I am an American!” Today, that may come across as humorously dated, but on one level or another, that mentality survives when many Americans hazard to travel abroad.

All of which reminds me of “The Ransom of Red Chief,” a 1907 short story by American humorist O. Henry. The gist of the story is two men kidnap and attempt to ransom a wealthy family’s son. Eventually, the men are driven to distraction by the boy’s behavior, and end up having to pay the boy’s father to take him back.

Perhaps that is what Washington should do from now on. If holding foolish Americans for ridiculous infractions has become Pyongyang’s tool diplomatic tactic, the State Department could learn a lesson or two from O. Henry’s fictional Alabama family. That is, go slow on the negotiations and ultimately make the captors pay. That is, the United States should demand that Pyongyang send future hostages back to China, if not all the way back to America, at North Korean expense.

North Korea is frankly worse off holding American eccentrics and fools in its jails than America accommodating the same people with their antics in America.

To put this suggestion into perspective, consider past the receptions of the released Japanese NGO workers and South Korean missionaries from their hardships as Taliban hostages. Were they welcomed home with open arms by their governments and citizens? Heck, no! They were rightly and openly criticized in their press and on the street for harming their nations by their ridiculous stunts.

But asking Americans to act like Japanese and Koreans is too expecting too much from too many people. On the other hand, suggesting the U.S. State Department policy wonks to reconsider their strategies with Pyongyang may be feasible. Often it seems that Washington is caught up in some kind of intellectual ennui, waiting for something to change in Pyongyang - which implies that the United States is incapable of taking a creative initiative.

By making it clear to its citizens and to North Korea that the United States is no longer going to negotiate for captured Americans’ release, Washington will be sending a new signal to Pyongyang. The DPRK may now be off the list of “terrorist nations,” but Washington should retain the freedom to treat North Korea as if it is a terrorist organization when it comes to not negotiating for American hostages. That kind of public change in policy should send a strong, new message to Kim Jung-un: arrest Americans at your own expense.


*The author is a long-term resident of Korea and author of two books on doing business, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.”

by Tom Coyner

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