North Korea’s return to six-party negotiations in Beijing has been accompanied by greater civility and seriousness than many expected. Further, the frequent and direct bilateral contacts that have taken place between the U.S. and North Korean delegations—a softening of the Bush administration’s earlier insistence that six-party talks be its only mode of dealing with Pyongyang—have been surprising and welcome.
However, in the absence of U.S. concessions—which should not occur unless North Korea takes several steps beyond the nuclear issue alone—it is doubtful that Pyongyang will agree to the deal being offered. Kim Jong Il and those who rule the DPRK with him need much more than electricity to rescue their country from its post-Cold War economic collapse and are thus nearly certain to demand a higher price than electricity for the one major asset they possess.
Anticipating an impasse, what should the United States and its partners do? As Donald Rumsfeld has argued, the right way of dealing with an unsolvable problem is to enlarge it—an approach we believe proper for dealing with the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal. Rather than barter over the price to be paid to a Stalinist regime that threatens the region and abuses its own people for weapons that it is treaty-bound not to have, we believe that the United States should pursue regime transformation in North Korea by also placing market and human rights reform “baskets” squarely on the negotiating table. If Pyongyang agrees, the United States can afford to be generous—not as appeasement but as a means of helping North Korea achieve structural and irreversible reform. If the regime says no, it will have unambiguously identified itself as the reason why negotiations have failed. And the United States, together with at least Japan, will have demonstrated a strong determination to deal with the root causes of the current crisis and the certain source of equivalent future ones.
Prospects for a “Helsinki approach” to North Korea have been enhanced by the recent issuance of an important Statement of Principles on U.S. policy toward North Korea recently signed by leaders of the Korean-American, Evangelical, Jewish and feminist movements. Co-signatories included leaders like Mark Palmer and Max Kampelman, who leveraged human rights issues into historic success in the Helsinki accords between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The statement sets out the following key proposals: First, it decries the use or threatened use of military action by the United States as a means of achieving progress in our dealings with Pyongyang. Next, it insists that such human rights issues as family unification and gulag monitoring be on the table in all negotiations with the regime, and ties U.S. economic assistance to the regime to measurable human rights progress. Finally, the statement proposes legislation, directed at China, that is modeled on the Jackson-Vanik law that tied U.S. trade relations with the Soviet Union to the right of emigration of Soviet Jews, as well as the anti-Apartheid legislation that compelled the South African government to end its unconscionable practices. (China’s manifestly unlawful roundups of North Korean refugees whom it returns to North Korea for imprisonment, torture and frequent execution is treated in the statement as conduct equivalent to the Soviet anti-refusenik persecutions and South African pro-apartheid policies.) The coalition is drafting a tough Scoop Jackson National Security and Freedom Act—a development likely to be understood by China’s shrewd and pragmatic leaders as, for the first time, compelling it to choose between its current heartless approach to North Korean refugees and good trade relations with the United States.
Without market-based policies like those pursued in Vietnam and by China itself, North Korea, which spends 30 percent of its GDP on its military, will face economic catastrophe again—even if it gets South Korean electricity in a near-term deal. At that point, having firmly established the precedent that threatening behavior and illicit weapons result in subsidies, the regime will surely create another crisis to extort the world community yet again. Given its economic weakness, it will fail to see or to have any other choice.
And as for human rights, how to deal with a Stalinist regime that has killed millions of its own people and continues to lock up hundreds of thousands in a horrible gulag? Governments of this type are not inherently trustworthy; if they lack the decency to protect their own weak and destitute, and engage in torture and brutality on a massive scale, their word is virtually worthless. Verification measures can help, but are unlikely to uncover everything.
The specific manner in which human rights and economic reform should be pursued in negotiations is open to debate. Flexibility is appropriate; patience is necessary; fundamental change may not be immediate. At the same time, some steps are clearly in order. Most significantly, the immediate and prominently announced appointment of a special envoy for North Korean human rights—as mandated by the North Korea Human Rights Act passed by Congress last year—is called for.
In the end, without placing human rights and economic reform firmly on the agenda, we do a disservice to our own national values, to the brave people of North Korea who have suffered under its regime for so long—and to any realistic hopes of definitively denuclearizing the world’s last Stalinist state.