Down to Basics in North Korea

Donald G. Gross and James E. Goodby
James E. Goodby Former Brookings Expert, Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow - Hoover Institution

February 4, 2005

A deep and abiding mutual distrust between North Korea and the United States lies at the heart of the impasse which is blocking any real progress towards eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The outlines of a deal to end the weapons program have become increasingly clear, but the leading protagonists in the negotiations—North Korea and the United States—bear so much enmity toward each other that they cannot bring themselves to start the process of accommodation.

To Washington and Pyongyang, acting rationally in their own self-interest means engaging in a zero-sum game—an advance for one must be a defeat for the other. This attitude will not be changed within the narrow framework of the six party talks on nuclear issues. External events, not directly related to the substance of the nuclear discussions, will be required to change the mind-sets on both sides.

Last year, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. It was designed to promote human rights and to encourage humanitarian support for North Korean citizens. Because the original inspiration for this bill came from the theory that encouraging massive refugee flows from North Korea would result in regime change there, the North Korean Government is deeply suspicious of the legislation. But on its face, the law encourages the U.S. administration to take a different tack in its relationship with North Korea – to focus on improving the well-being of ordinary North Koreans. The opportunity should be seized.

The single area where the Bush administration has shown the beneficent face of the United States to North Korea is in its ongoing contributions of humanitarian aid. Though President Bush labeled Pyongyang a charter member of the “axis of evil” in January 2002, his administration has continued to provide North Korea with large quantities of humanitarian food assistance.

When North Korea suffered a terrible rail disaster last spring, killing hundreds of civilians, mostly children, the administration responded with a statement of sincere sympathy and a donation of relief funds. On more than one occasion, President Bush has expressed his heartfelt concern for the plight of North Korean people who continue to suffer from poverty and hunger. It is hard to exaggerate the suffering caused by the horrendously poor medical care.

If the Bush administration were to announce a program of substantial medical assistance to North Korea—to provide desperately needed medical equipment, supplies, and medicine as well as to improve the delivery of health services, Pyongyang would be hard put to accuse the U.S. once again of maintaining a “hostile policy” in the face of this expression of American good will. If direct U.S. involvement is too much for North Korea to swallow, non-governmental organizations or U.N. agencies could manage the program. The key will be to negotiate monitoring procedures that assure that medical assistance gets to those who need it.

For its part, despite repeatedly denouncing the United States’ plans for an invasion, Pyongyang has pursued ongoing efforts to repatriate the remains of U.S. servicemen who were unaccounted for at the end of the Korean War. North Korea regularly guides U.S. military officials to remote sites where U.S. soldiers died and helps recover their remains and personal effects.

If North Korea were to announce a considerable increase in manpower and resources to assist the United States in this area, it would be perceived by a majority of Americans as a friendly and forward-looking gesture. The U.S. administration would undoubtedly react with an expression of sincere appreciation and gratitude.

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, also has another chance to change the atmosphere at practically no cost. This is to come clean about the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped in the 1970s and held in North Korea ever since.

Taken together, these mutual gestures by the United States and North Korea could have the effect of changing the zero-sum game mind-set in which both governments are caught. This, in turn, could have a positive effect on the atmosphere of the six party talks, without either side having to offer premature concessions on security issues.

At the end of the day, the United States and North Korea, as well as the other participants in the six party talks—South Korea, China, Russia and Japan—have much to lose if this multilateral negotiating forum proves unable to advance a solution to the North Korea nuclear issue. The chance of a military confrontation in Northeast Asia will grow and the six party talks, which could form the nucleus of a future regional security system in the volatile Northeast Asia region, will self-destruct.

If the six party talks succeed as a diplomatic structure and process for addressing the North Korea nuclear issue, the participants will be able to take up other issues in the future that affect the prospects for war or peace in Northeast Asia. The likelihood of achieving this goal will be immeasurably enhanced if the U.S. and North Korea make reciprocal unilateral gestures of friendship and good will toward each other at the outset of the New Year.