Engaging North Korea: Calls for Leadership

In September, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies held weekly events on key issues related to the Korean peninsula and the Northeast Asia region. Topics of discussion included:

  • the evolving purpose and feasibility of the U.S. rebalance toward Asia, with a special focus on whether the rebalance might improve Korea-Japan relations;
  • regional and national preparedness for unification led by South Korea and the differing scenarios for unification;
  • critiques of the current U.S. “strategic patience” policy toward North Korea;
  • new rationales for putting the reins of leadership for engagement with the DPRK in South Korea’s hands;
  • successful Track II efforts by Americans and others around the world in contrast to official U.S. stasis; and
  • ROK leadership in green economic development and climate change.

The events featured 19 speakers and 13 additional participants from the U.S. and the ROK, and a total of 350 guests attended the three events. Presenters and audience alike expressed great satisfaction with the generous time provided for discussion and debate among experts and with the audience.

Although the events covered a wide landscape of issues and policies, analysis of the current state of humanitarian and human rights challenges were absent. We address these issues at the end of this piece.

September 18: The Seventh Seoul-Washington Forum, jointly organized and sponsored with the Korea Foundation in Seoul, featured panel discussions on the rebalance to Asia, Korean unification and South Korea’s new leadership role in green growth and climate change. While many agreed that the United States rebalance to Asia was strategically and economically beneficial for South Korea’s interest, participants were skeptical of its sustainability and practical contributions to enhanced security cooperation and stability in the region. Opposed to the view that the rebalance is intended to contain China, Gary Clyde Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) stressed the mutual economic advantage of the rebalance, especially if China is included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Contrasting visions of unification by the DPRK and the ROK were highlighted in the discussion. Debate also focused on China’s concerns over what kind of political and economic arrangements on the peninsula would accord with its own security interests and its likely opposition to a continued U.S. troop presence on the peninsula. The debate elicited a fundamental question by Sook-Jong Lee, president of the East Asia Institute and former Brookings Visiting Fellow, whether there could ever be a unification structure agreeable to both the United States and China. David Maxwell from Georgetown University responded that the certain inevitability of unification will force China to support it as long as their core objectives are met. Experts on South Korea’s role in green growth and climate change were the most diverse in background and analytical focus. So-Min Cheong from the University of Kansas compared the soft laws of South Korea and France on adaptation planning to the environment. Although soft laws, such as international declarations or conventions, are important in signaling a change in behavior and serving as a source of information, Cheong emphasized that deeper discussion is required to turn these into binding laws due to the complexity of climate change. Jay Koh, partner of Siguler Guff & Company and member of the Private Sector Advisory Group to the UN Green Climate Fund (GCF), assessed South Korea’s new role as host country of the GCF Secretariat and its leadership over the international process of establishing governance structures and fundraising.

September 23: “People-to-People Outreach, Americans and North Koreans: A Conversation with Ambassador Donald Gregg” featured a conversation between former U.S. Ambassador to the ROK Donald Gregg and CEAP’s Katharine Moon, SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies. Moon posed important questions about the role of Track II engagement between the United States and North Korea and how to assess progress and impact, as well as some lessons Track II interactions might offer to governments. Gregg provided candid and informative assessments of his Track II activities with North Koreans including English education programs, training for economic development, and study of international business law. He emphasized the importance of continuously engaging North Koreans in order to dispel both countries’ negative views of each other and cultivate mutual trust. As chairman of the Pacific Century Institute, Gregg organized the first-ever meeting between the two countries’ Korean War veterans, who resolved to prevent such devastation from occurring again. Gregg observed that North Koreans displayed a sincere desire to learn about the larger world and admitted their urgent need for technical training in the English language, the workings of international institutions, trade, and business management.

September 29Gi-Wook Shin and David Straub from Stanford University unveiled their recent study, titled “Tailored Engagement,” for the first time to the U.S. public. Just weeks prior to this event, the scholars presented their study at the ROK National Assembly where it received bipartisan support. Guided by the principles of mutual interests, application of market principles, international collaboration, and flexibility, the study argues for a realistic policy approach toward North Korea. They emphasized the following:

  • South Korea should lay down the groundwork for reunification with a focus on strengthening the ROK itself;
  • South Korea should de-link future interactions on non-nuclear issues from the North’s nuclear program; and
  • The ROK should fine-tune its sanctions, especially the May 24th Measures, to allow room for engagement opportunities.

This last view was also supported by both ruling and opposition parties at the National Assembly, as members believe the measures should be relaxed in order to resume Inter-Korean dialogue.

The timeliness of this event as well as the points raised in the study were highly significant, considering North Korea’s “surprise diplomacy” on October 4 when both Koreas took a bold step toward a more independent, Inter-Korean diplomacy.

Important for U.S. policymakers and think tanks is the fact that many of the speakers in these three events, American and Korean, shared skepticism and disappointment with the United States’ “strategic patience” approach toward North Korea. Experts believe this strategy has produced little to no progress over the past two years and that it has amounted to neglect. And although it is necessary for the United States to implement bilateral and multilateral sanctions to impede North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, experts worry that the lack of simultaneous efforts at positive engagement will prolong tensions on the peninsula. Discouraged by perceived inaction by the U.S., many speakers shared the view that South Korea is no longer a “shrimp among whales” in the international community and must now take over the leadership role when approaching North Korea, with the United States playing a supporting role.

Absent was discussion of the impact of sanctions on the humanitarian needs of common Koreans, especially the most vulnerable—children, pregnant women and new mothers, and the elderly. Food shortage, inadequate healthcare, poor sanitation and lack of clean water are grave concerns. Currently, UN humanitarian programs in North Korea face serious problems due to low funding. One of the reasons for the low funding is due to the unintended consequences of international sanctions. Sanctions targeting North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, the country’s main route for money transfer, have prevented the flow of earmarked funds by foreign aid groups. In 2013, UN agencies in North Korea received only 34.8 percent of the $150,090,000 needed to address critical humanitarian needs of North Koreans. More recently, the World Food Program (WFP) warned that its program in the DPRK is on the verge of shutting down as early as January 2015 if additional funding is not secured. Dangerous consequences for the North Korean people are foreseeable for the program’s targeted 1.63 million of the most vulnerable populations.

Missing also was China’s role in the forced repatriation of North Korean border-crossers by the Chinese government. China has been violating international law despite being a state party to the UN Refugee Convention. However, China recently has shown signs of a policy shift when a group of North Korean defectors detained on the border of Laos and China were reportedly released rather than being sent back to the DPRK. Given the increasing importance of ROK-Sino relations, coupled with China’s frustrations with Pyongyang, both the ROK and United States should promptly pick up on this positive momentum to induce China to comply fully with its UN treaty commitments.

The surprise visit by the trio of top North Korean governing elites to Incheon on October 4 may signal potential improvements in Inter-Korean relations. In light of this development, tailored engagement and increased people-to-people interactions with North Korea may be the appropriate and effective approaches at this time to decrease tensions on the peninsula.