Broadening the Spectrum for Engaging North Korea: How Is the Situation Seen on the Korean Peninsula?

03/10/2015 10:02 am ET | Updated May 10, 2015

Read the first and second installments of this series here and here.

If the foregoing suggests that even our U.S. allies do not always see us straight, the fault may be partly ours: for not putting our own case clearly and standing up for ourselves. If Japan can embark unilaterally on dialogue with North Korea, it is surely high time for the state with the highest stakes in this area -- which indeed formally claims jurisdiction over the whole of our peninsula, as Pyongyang does also -- to go back to first principles and adumbrate our own holistic strategy, based on our own interests rather than those of our allies.

From this perspective, South Korea has been hostage to the nuclear issue for a long time. This myopia is in part a consequence of our efforts to coordinate with the United States on security issues. We have been drawn into a larger debate on non-proliferation which, despite its global importance, loses sight of the specifics of the Korean case and has signally failed to denuclearize North Korea.

We need a new strategy and a fresh starting point. We must find a way to move beyond the nuclear issue alone, seeking rather to bring North Korea into the international community. Unfortunately, prioritizing the nuclear issue has hobbled all dialogue. We need to find more creative ways to engage, with the goal of integrating the North more fully into the global economic system. North Korea has tremendous potential as an economy and society, with many talented and educated people and rich natural resources. The process will be challenging, but the North Korean leadership shows clear signs that it is interested in such engagement.

To this end we must evaluate and learn from South Korea's past policies and why they failed. Under the Lee Myung-bak administration there were inconsistencies in the approach to North/South relations that caused confusion and misunderstandings. On the one hand, the Lee administration proposed economic and business incentives for the North that were aimed at inducing it into a dialogue. President Lee offered some appealing economic "carrots," so to speak, as a reward for denuclearization. But although that move was a thoughtful one, the larger geopolitical environment made it hard for Pyongyang, given its concern with face, to comply. The potential for real progress was there, but the importance of dialogue in and of itself was not pursued with sufficient rigor. The range of topics for discussion was too narrow to give North Korea sufficient diplomatic space for negotiations.

In addition, President Lee tended to look at North/South relations in terms of strict ethical rules. Although he may have had noble intentions, his rhetoric was confusing for Pyongyang. He pledged that he wanted North Korea to enjoy a $3,000 per capita income, and made various related promises. But at the same time, he placed denuclearization as the condition for all discussions on economic opportunities. Setting the order for discussions in such manner limited the possible channels for engagement of private citizens and other institutions such as churches and NGOs, who had no role in the denuclearization progress in the relations with North Korea. North Koreans simply could not understand why the nuclear issue had to be treated as a precondition in all other fields of dialogue as well.

There were efforts made to put together a comprehensive package, a so-called "summit deal" or "grand bargain". That package was promising, but the proposal did not gain much support because the focus on the nuclear issue left little room to engage in back channel discussions about such a comprehensive package, as well as little space for background discussion with NGOs and citizens groups.

Ultimately the Kim Jong-il regime was frustrated by this unilateral approach and started to push back. I think that President Lee needed more of a grand vision of what was possible. Every time there was a chance to strike a deal of some sort, the North Koreans demanded rice, fertilizers and other benefits. One could argue that they had not established sufficient trust, but without a dialogue, no progress could be made.

The current Park Geun-hye administration is trying to be more flexible in its approach and has articulated a larger vision. For example, President Park has presented some basic principles for talks and also spoken in favor of a "trust building" process. Although President Park's initiatives are promising, there were people in her administration who have spoken about "unification by absorption" and otherwise suggested a unification process driven by Seoul. Such words get back to Pyongyang quickly and have inhibited more profound discussions. President Park needs to develop communication at all levels in society, both public and private, in order to launch a multivalent national dialogue on a broad range of issues pending between North and South. The scale of those communications has increased under President Park, but I think she can do more.

Overall, South Koreans feel that President Park has managed to handle the North well. That consensus can serve as support for her if she makes a significant overture to Pyongyang. There is a growing consensus in Seoul that this moment is appropriate for such a move and I hope President Park will follow through. We have to hope that the high-level talks agreed after the remarkable visit of three senior Northern leaders to Incheon in early October will go ahead and make progress, and that neither side will be distracted by secondary issues.

North Korea

A perennial dilemma for North Korea's interlocutors is what mixture of stick and carrot works best. Empirically, sticks have not registered much success. A smarter way to make real progress with the Pyongyang regime is with solid and attractive incentives for them to initiate changes inside the country. The Northern regime knows that nuclear weapons will not bring them economic dynamism. They know they are missing out on the tremendous prosperity in the region, and that without giving up those nuclear arsenals they cannot prosper.

Pyongyang has still not reached a consensus inside the country on how to move beyond this tired strategy, and it will take the regime some time to do so. In some respects it does make sense to pressurize North Korea, but perhaps more in terms of missed economic opportunities than saber rattling. We are never going to frighten them into changing direction, but we can persuade them to embark on a more rational path based on self-interest.

Some economic reforms and political changes are being considered and implemented in North Korea out of sheer necessity. Since last year, each of the country's eight provinces has been entitled to implement projects as well as to hire and fire personnel. This independent decision-making process at the local level is crucially important, and reminiscent of the early reforms carried out in China under Deng Xiaoping.

North Korea has also enacted reforms that allow private citizens to cultivate their own land and sell their surplus in the open market after paying a certain amount to the authorities. The severe food shortages of the past have become history, and agricultural production has risen considerably. However, these are minor reforms which will not suffice to address North Korea's intractable economic challenges.

Read the fourth 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.