Andreea Brinza | 1 March 2022 When he was welcomed to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Feb. 6 for the Olympics, Polish President
The drums of war have started beating again. From H.R. McMaster’s rejection of deterrence to Donald Trump’s comments about military readiness, it seems US policy is heading towards the military option. The development of both a North Korea intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and a miniaturized nuclear warhead has shortened the time-frame for dealing with Pyongyang. In the meantime, sanctions have become the main tool for pressuring North Korea. But sanctions will continue to fail, not only because of the adaptability of the North Korean economy, coupled with the imperfect implementation of sanctions, but also because North Korea sees them as a sign of American hostility, hardening its resolve.
Parallel to sanctions, the US is expending its military presence in the region, hoping to deter and pressure the North. But a firmer US military position, countless military exercises between the US and its allies and an intimidating posture will only aggravate the problem. While deploying the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), increasing the number of F-35s and tanks in South Korea and Japan and flying B1-B bombers near North Korea makes the allies feel safer, it only angers and provokes the North, adding to a flame that’s soon to burst into fire.
The results of the policies implemented over the past few months are clear: tests lead to sanctions and warnings, which elicit North Korean threats and more tests, which in turn lead to newer sanctions. The circle of hostility that has been created is making war more likely and the only way to escape this circle is with a more flexible approach.
Thankfully, we don’t have to look very far in order to find a recipe that might work in terms of taming North Korea, as the results of the Sunshine Policy implemented between 1998 and 2008 are striking. Initially started by a mix between humanitarian aid and economic cooperation, engagement offered the North an economic boost and, as such, a tangible benefit hard to ignore for the regime in Pyongyang. Step by step, the North sought the normalization of diplomatic relations with a number of countries. In 2000, president Kim Dae-jung of South Korea was shaking hands and smiling to cameras, accompanied by no other than Kim Jong-il. Two years later, Kim Jong-il welcomed Japanese prime-minister Junichiro Koizumi in Pyongyang. Only bad luck and bad timing precluded President Bill Clinton from following his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and his former secretary of defense, William Perry, and visiting North Korea before the end of his term. For a few years, the North Korean kingdom was hermit no more.
In the period between 1998 and 2008 North Korea has developed joint economic ventures with the South, including the most famous Kaesong, a commercial complex where over 100 South-Korean firms were employing North-Koreans. It has agreed to a joint touristic program in the Kumgang Mountain and, as a result, in 2008, about 1000 South-Koreans were visiting the North every day, reaching it by car. There were family reunions, talks and even celebrations. Big media outlets such as BBC and Reuters were invited to set up agencies in the country and train future North Korean journalists. There was hope. After the June 2000 summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il, constructions to rebuild the railway between the two countries started, and during the administration of Roh Moo-hyun, even more micro-connections were established. As the two Koreas moved slowly towards a lasting-peace, the most optimistic of us were even speculating about a future confederation, as connections broadened and provocations became shortened.
The Sunshine policy, together with the Agreed Framework, signed in 1994 between the US and North Korea, has showed that a nuclear-armed North Korea, far from being an ideal scenario, could be tolerated if it chose to behave as a friend of the international community. While the agreement has been violated by both countries, North Korea had sought the reopening of negotiations in 1999, had agreed to a moratorium on missile testing and had made significant steps to show good faith. A renegotiation of the terms of 1994 should have taken place, but the two countries grew more and more suspicious of each other’s intentions as time went by and the agreement lacked implementation. Finally, with president Bush’s famous Axis of Evil speech, engagement between the US and North Korea stopped.
While not only sugar and honey, the context back then was undoubtedly more stable than what we have seen since 2008. The Sunshine Policy was showing signs of working. It was able to move further despite provocations, and even if some components failed, the policy stood strong. For a strategy in place for only 10 years, out of which 5 were lacking support from North Korea’s main enemy, the US, its successes are hard to ignore.
Today, North Korea has tested four nuclear weapons in the last four years, a period during which it has launched an average of almost two missiles a month. If in 2008 the international community was talking about the success of Kaesong and their hope for a more opened North Korea, from then on the spotlight was stolen by provocative acts ending in losses of lives (such as the sinking of the Cheonan, when 46 South Koreans died) and war declarations. If, at the beginning of the century, unification seemed possible, today it is brought up only in the context of North Korea’s collapse. On the other side of the 38th parallel, South Korea is enhancing the range and payload of its missiles and preparing options to decapitate the North Korean leadership, while asking the United States to bring back tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. No foreign leader is contemplating a visit to Pyongyang. There is no more Kaesong, no more Kumgang and no more interaction between the two Koreas.
Critics of the Sunshine Policy call it limited, and they are right in some respects, for it couldn’t convince North Korea to ditch its nuclear weapons. However, some goals-adjustment is needed if we ever want to solve the problem with the North. Any workable policy needs to acknowledge that the possibility of Kim Jong-un agreeing to dismantle his nuclear program is close to, if not, zero. Nuclear weapons assure the survival of his regime. Today, no matter how much the US considers war a viable option, it would bring about a horrible fight ending with an uncountable loss of lives, no matter the side of the parallel you’re on. Additionally, nuclear weapons serve Kim Jong-un with a negotiation tool that is extremely valuable to a regime that has very little leverage. Kim Jong-un knows very well who Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein were, and would hate to share their fate. As such, one should naturally infer that his nuclear weapons are simply too valuable to renounce.
If a policy must start from the premise of a nuclear-armed North Korea, how can we work around the threat it poses? We need to assess the probability of the North using its nuclear weapons, because only then do they become a real problem. North Korea knows that its nukes are a workable deterrent, but it also knows that any war waged, with or without them, will ultimately lead to the regime’s demise. Since that isn’t in Kim Jong-un’s interest, we can conclude that North Korea will choose war only if the regime’s demise is unavoidable either way. That is, either somebody (the US) decides to attack the North or the North is dying on its own from years of decaying economy and no friends to call for help. That is the scenario that the present economic sanctions, deterrence and aggressive rhetoric are in the process of constructing, and it benefits no-one. However, the Sunshine Policy would do the exact opposite.
Firstly, a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic programs will have to be negotiated. This freeze allows Kim Jong-un to maintain the deterrent he values so much, while assuring that the intentions of the North are peaceful and further developments are deemed unnecessary. There are many things that the US can afford to offer for this freeze. Economic aid and partial lifting of sanctions are the first to come to mind. North Korea is likely to accept such a deal, since Kim has focused his attention to economic growth, aiming to improve the standard of life in the North. Additionally, even the model of a double-freeze (that is, a nuclear freeze on North Korea for a freeze in US-ROK military exercises), as proposed by Russia and China, can be made to work, since it poses little to no danger to regional stability. The United States will still maintain military forces in the South, and the South Korean forces are better prepared, better equipped and benefit from great defensive capabilities. There is no question that the balance of power will remain strongly in favor of the US-ROK alliance, rendering any potential attack from the North a suicidal mission.
Secondly, economic cooperation with the North should become the main tool of the policy, implemented by both the US and South Korea. This economic cooperation should include aid, joint economic projects and touristic activities. North Korea has an obvious interest in accepting those, as it is a country that barely gets by in terms of economic activities. Furthermore, the US should look into the light-water reactors promised as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework, as a tool for convincing North Korea that further developing its nuclear program is really of no use, while also pre-empting any possible rhetoric of energy needs coming from Pyongyang. With time passing, a total lifting of international sanctions can be discussed as a further reward of the North’s good behavior.
Thirdly, political communication should be set up, as there is a need to engage the North politically to reduce tensions and misunderstanding which can’t only be catered to by economic activities. There should be a permanent form of communication between the North and the United States, where the two can discuss issues at hand as to avoid any miscalculation. Dialogue in this form also serves in attesting to the North that the US is true to its promise of not searching to undermine the regime, therefore indirectly also addressing the security dilemma that Kim Jong-un has in the status quo.
Lastly, such a policy needs to embody willingness and patience, as it is a draft of a long-term taming rather than a short-term patching. The US needs to understand that setting up forms of communication with the North will require compromises and will represent a hardship in diplomacy and negotiations. There is no doubt that the North will maintain its bad-track record, at least initially. In the perception of North Korea, engaging in low-level provocative acts, which have happened before (be it in the form of an island shelling or a land-mine explosion), serves as a test of intention and willingness of the international community. In this light, closing all channels of interaction due to a single provocation would only confirm to Kim Jong-un that the West is really after him, having no intention what-so-ever to negotiate and only looking for reasons to punish him and his country. It doesn’t mean that such a policy dictates closing an eye to challenges coming from the North, but it does mean that a proportional response needs to be found in order to avoid wiping out in one stroke all the progress that would have been achieved.
Even if called soft and one-sided, a policy of unconditional engagement has immense benefits. On the short-term, it fosters the stabilization of a context that is now characterized solely by violent declarations and war preparations. On the longer term, it is able to create a North Korea that, while far from being democratic or compliant, can become less of a threat for the stability of the region. The economic component can create a group of people that will come to see tangible benefits in interacting with what are now portrayed as enemy countries. Political engagement would foster a relationship between two actors that don’t fear each other, a relationship where miscalculations are few and risks are fewer. While engagement won’t denuclearize North Korea, it will shape it to be rather an acquaintance than a deadly enemy, eliminating thus the disastrous costs that any escalation now poses.
With all the recent aggressive rhetoric coming from Washington we seem to be heading towards a war that would benefit nobody. It is time to take a step back and ask ourselves how to break free of the circle of hostility we are in, because there is another alternative – and diplomacy doesn’t cost any lives.
Photo credits (in order of appearance): The sun shining over Kumsusan Palace in Pyongyang (Flickr/NViktor), A 2010 test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system (Flickr/U.S. Missile Defense Agency), The June 15th North–South Joint Declaration (Flickr/InSapphoWeTrust), The Korean Peninsula at night viewed from space (Flickr/NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center), Moon Jae-in’s inauguration as President of South Korea (Flickr/Republic of Korea).
Ioana Cristocea is a former RISAP intern. Her research interests focus on inter-Korean relations, the security of the Korean Peninsula, the internal politics of North and South Korea and the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region.
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