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Half Way There: Why the U.S. Can't Stop at Sanctions on North Korea

On August 30, the White House announced new sanctions aimed at hurting the lifestyle, illicit, and proliferation activities of the North Korean regime. For the last two years, North Korea has been up to no good. It conducted its second nuclear test in May 2009, launched 19 missiles in 2009 alone, and most recently, in March 2010, torpedoed a South Korean naval ship. So the administration, in line with generations of U.S. North Korea policy, sought out new ways to sanction the trouble makers -- taking measures to target the "bad guys" of course, and not the greater North Korean population.

But sanctions alone have failed to induce real change in North Korea. If the United States wants to transform U.S.-DPRK relations, whilst punishing those who deserve to be punished, and still avoid hurting the innocent, it's time to drop the other shoe of what was always supposed to be a dual-track U.S. approach to North Korea: Engagement.

It is time to sanction the North Korean elite, and engage North Korean society. The best and most legal way to begin is through the long term strategy of academic engagement.

The precedent for this long term strategy is there. The U.S. has long believed it was important to engage nations with whom it had tense or adversarial relations in academic exchange. It began academic exchanges with the USSR in 1958 during the height of the nuclear arms race. Exchanges with Vietnam began three years before we normalized relations and academic and scientific engagement efforts with Cuba have existed from the beginning. After 9/11, the U.S. allocated $10 million/year in academic exchange to Arabic speaking nations, and today, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Indonesia, are target countries to receive funding for exchange projects from the Department of State. A fundamental piece of U.S. strategy towards China has long been academic and youthful exchange which also began before official normalization of relations. Through Republican and Democratic administrations alike, America has long valued a strategy of separating a country's people from its regime--investing in improved bilateral relations by investing in the country's people (at a cost of roughly $600 million/year (page 26)).

Academic engagement efforts with the USSR kept a cold conflict from going hot. Yet North Korea continues to develop its nuclear arsenal and still Washington sticks to half of its advertised dual-track strategy.

This is not a new idea. North Korea experts across the board condone academic exchange and the suggestion frequently makes its way into policy studies, expert testimonies, and more. However, so far, it has been a suggestion for "later." The U.S. administration, understandably a little preoccupied with nuclear weapons programs, missiles, and torpedoes, has not, for lack of a better explanation, had time to think about it. But didn't it walk and chew gum at the same time when dealing with the USSR? Isn't that what having a dual-track approach entails?

While the importance of successful denuclearization talks cannot be overstated, limiting all interaction with North Korea to that forum results in missed opportunities for real progress. By tying the beginning of academic exchange to another, stalled platform, policymakers adopt a "someday, but not yet" mentality that prevents even the possibility of more options for the future.

For decades, the North Korean regime has mastered the arts of nuclear development, winning concessions from the U.S., and keeping it consumed with immediate concerns. Pyongyang has proven its will to go on like this forever. It is time Washington also took a longer-term approach and set its sights on fundamentally transforming the way the North Korean people view us as well as their own government. It is time for a concurrent track of academic engagement.

Those in power in Pyongyang are all near or past the age of 80, the Kim Jong-il era is nearing its end, and no one knows what the future holds for the hermit kingdom. The U.S. can either remain paralyzed, dependent on our ability to continue to find new ideas for ways to sanction an already-isolated nation, or it can adopt a concurrent policy of shaping what that future looks like.