Broadening the Spectrum for Engaging North Korea: Introduction

02/24/2015 06:18 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015
JUNG YEON-JE via Getty Images

Although many speculated that we might see a breakthrough in North-South relations on the Korean Peninsula after high ranking officials made an impromptu visit to the Asian Games at Incheon in October of last year, tensions of late have been ratcheted up again, especially after the United States responded with sanctions to the allegations of North Korea's hacking of Sony Pictures. Now, with talk of designating North Korea again as a terrorism sponsor, there is concern that we are entering into another period of heightened tensions.

But might it not be a smarter strategy to create a virtuous cycle, rather than a vicious cycle, one that can turn this all too predictable process around? The true lesson of the recent uptick in tensions is not that we should increase pressures on Pyongyang, but rather that we have to move beyond the current approach to engagement with North Korea.

For the last twenty years we have engaged North Korea through a variety of limited forums such as the Six Party Talks, reunions for family members separated on either side of the DMZ and limited humanitarian activities by NGOs. The world is changing rapidly in this age of globalization and the tremendous potential of East Asia is being slowed down by our inability to fully integrate North Korea into the international community. The time has come for a creative and broad approach to engaging North Korea that can get us beyond the current stalemate and open up new vistas of a peaceful and integrated Northeast Asia.

As China emerges as a truly global power and the United States tries to define the nature of its rebalancing in Asia, this moment is critical for creating a broad dialogue with Pyongyang that includes more actors and offers more potential directions for future development. This article, and those that will follow, provides an overall analysis of the current situation and presents a few concrete proposals for innovative engagement that can change the manner in which current problems are perceived. By changing those perceptions, we can lay the foundations for a more fundamental integration of the region in an institutional sense that reflects the economic realities of this century. The first step is a shift in the manner in which we engage North Korea.

The current situation in North Korea should be viewed in a proper historical context. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, North Korea faced serious economic problems. The lives of its ordinary citizens were particularly miserable, because the basic elements of the country's economy turned out to be completely dysfunctional. To some extent, this situation occurred because of the drawbacks of economic policy: however, the collapse of the gigantic Communist economic bloc was the most severe blow to Pyongyang. The Communist bloc system of trade, economic and technological support encouraged each country to concentrate on its domestic social and political concerns and in general, did away with competitive international trade. The pricing system in the Communist bloc was not aligned with international market prices. North Korea enjoyed favorable pricing of energy and raw materials -- many of which were obtained from the Soviet Union at beneficial prices far below the international market price. The situation was similar in all of the Soviet Union's satellite nations. When this system fell apart in the late 1980s, North Korea for the first time faced a tremendous growth of prices for basic products and was subject to the influence of market forces, which it was completely unprepared for.

North Korea also relied on the Soviet Union for a constant supply of weaponry and means to maintain its military. When that system fell apart, the entire economic, social and ideological system that supported North Korea so perfectly collapsed. The loss of Soviet support of North Korea's military forced the national elites to consider the urgent need to defend their country by themselves. In that sense the crisis for Pyongyang was similar to Seoul's earlier reaction to a somewhat similar situation: growing US doubts about its military presence in South Korea. This began late in the Nixon administration, including a hint about withdrawal of American forces by Vice President Spiro Agnew during a visit to Seoul. The trend reached a peak under President Jimmy Carter who spoke bluntly about complete withdrawal. Just as then-President Park Chung-hee felt that South Korea should develop nuclear arms to defend itself, Kim Il-sung probably also had the same motivation in mind.

The North Korean economy was built on the ideology of self-reliance. North Korea had been lucky enough to possess significant natural resources, including a wide range of minerals such as coal. It also inherited a developed infrastructure and an advanced industrial sector from the days of Japanese colonization. This enabled North Korea to pursue a degree of self-sufficiency that was impossible for South Korea. The combination of natural resources, strong infrastructure and access to inexpensive imports from the Soviet Union is what kept the North Korean economy afloat.

Therefore it was a terrible blow to the North Korean economy when the Soviet trading system fell apart, and Pyongyang faced a pricing system set by the international market. Even in the middle of the struggle to overcome this economic shock, North Korea hastily allocated significant resources for the development of nuclear arms.

After Kim Il-sung passed away in 1994, things went from bad to worse. The country suffered through four years of consecutive poor harvests because of bad weather and the loss of topsoil due to the implementation of inappropriate agricultural policies. This blow set the economy back, and many North Koreans died of starvation. The nation was demoralized and the suffering of the great majority of citizens was critical. In fact, I wonder if back in 1994 when Kim Il-sung (just before he died) accepted an offer from President Carter for direct interaction with the South, he was thinking that he really could not continue allocating these enormous amounts of resources for arming North Korea. At that point, some form of reconciliation could have mitigated the huge economic problems that the country faced.

When his father passed away, Kim Jong-Il inherited a hermit kingdom which faced a perfect storm: the collapse of the Soviet empire and economic decay due to the development of the nuclear program and years of continuous poor harvests. It would have been hard enough to respond to these challenges even under normal circumstances, but Kim Jong-Il also had to devote much of his time to consolidating his persona; power base as a new ruler.

Nuclear arms symbolize North Korea's self-reliance and independence, which means there are both domestic and external reasons why Pyongyang will not lightly abandon them. Although this program is expensive and risky, and has led to the country's isolation from the international community, North Koreans suggest that nuclear weapons are their cheapest approach to self-defense under the current economic circumstances.

Now a new young third leader has inherited this complex situation. Kim Jong-un has to cope with a military that is pushing for an increased nuclear arsenal. At the same time, he has to do something concrete to improve North Koreans' living standards. All this is happening against the background of the complex political games that he is playing in order to stay in power. The bottom line is that if he cannot find a way to improve relations with South Korea and the Western world, he will not have the resources and the time to ameliorate the situation of his people. The challenges for North Korea remain significant, and we cannot expect this inexperienced leader to have much free time to explore new initiatives.

Read the second installment of this series here.

The author is chairman and CEO of the JoongAng Media Network -- one of South Korea's leading media groups, including the prestigious JoongAng Ilbo daily -- and a former South Korean ambassador to the United States.