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A Possible "Off Ramp" in North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) inspects the second battalion under the Korean People's Army Unit 1973 (REUTERS/KCNA).

At the Brookings panel discussion on North Korea on April 15, “North Korea and Policy Priorities for the United States,” several important points were made that suggest a connecting of the dots would be useful. First, the consensus appeared to be that Kim Jong-un is calling the shots. Second, there is a high risk of catastrophic miscalculation in the present situation. Third, we should pay attention to what the North Koreans are telling us, "in their own words." Fourth, Kim Jong-un would like to open a discussion with the United States but he has left himself no exit from the current confrontation.

It can be argued that Kim Jong-un has in fact left himself an exit in a variety of ways, of which the most commonly mentioned is that the ending of the current United States-Republic of Korea joint military exercise will permit him to ratchet down the rhetoric. There is one other "off ramp" strategy that is never mentioned at all, which is surprising, considering that it was presented in Kim's own words in a highly public manner. It can be found in Kim Jong-un's New Year's Day speech this year, an address that Kim must have seen as a major statement of his intentions but which has been almost totally ignored.

This is what he said: "All the compatriots in the north, south and abroad should launch a dynamic struggle to carry out to the letter the June 15 Joint Declaration and the October 4 Declaration, great unification programs common to the nation in the new century and milestones for peace and prosperity."

The June 15, 2000 Joint Declaration was signed by then-ROK President Kim Dae-jung and former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il at a summit meeting held in Pyongyang. It included some features from the 1992 Basic Agreement, including family reunification, but was much less sweeping in its reach than the 1992 agreement. Its emphasis was on an independent effort by North and South Korea to achieve reunification. The October 4, 2007 agreement was signed by then-ROK President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang and was much more programmatic and substantive in content than the June 15, 2000 Declaration. Like the earlier summit declaration, the 2007 agreement stressed what it called "by-the-Korean-people-themselves."  In the present crisis-filled atmosphere, paragraph 4 of that document can be read as either an anachronism or as a beacon of hope. This is what it said:

The South and the North both recognize the need to end the current armistice regime and build a permanent peace regime. The South and the North have agreed to work together to advance the matter of having the leaders of the three or four parties directly concerned to convene on the Peninsula and declare an end to the war. With regard to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, the South and the North have agreed to work together to implement smoothly the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement and the February 13, 2007 Agreement achieved at the Six-Party Talks.

Of course, both the Declaration in 2000 and the Agreement in 2007 were negotiated by leaders of a party that is now out of power in South Korea, and the North Korean leader has been succeeded by his son. Both documents have been gathering dust in the archives for years. But Kim Jong-un's reference to them gave them new relevance. This is the powerful leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea saying that he and all Koreans should live up to the letter of these documents and he was saying that on January 1, 2013.

As an off-ramp strategy, one can find flaws in it, especially in the possibility that it was intended by Kim Jong-un as an attempt to drive a wedge between new ROK President Park Geun-hye and the leaders of South Korea's allies. It also opens the door to economic cooperation and possibly renewed assistance, difficult to contemplate under today's circumstances, which include the shut-down of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. But skillful diplomacy should certainly be able to exploit for the good whatever good there is in it.

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