For several weeks, the news about North Korea turned less confrontational.
It’s good news that North and South Korea are talking to each other for the first time in two years. Kim Jong Un’s decision to send athletes and cheerleaders (and his politically important younger sister) to the Pyeongchang Olympics is a sign of political movement.
Kim’s unexpected announcement to “all Koreans at home and abroad” that they should espouse “contact, travel, cooperation,” with the goal of reunification affects Korean public opinion, even in the North, perhaps above all in the North where public opinion is manipulated by the regime.
No one should be fooled of course. Kim may be, and must be, playing games of ambiguity and deception. The question is whether there is any sincerity in his zigging and zagging.
The North’s nuclear missile program is the first issue. Pyongyang’s official line means to reassure North Korea’s neighbors. Its nuclear weapons, so goes the doctrine, are intended to deter only the United States and are no threat to South Korea and Japan, let alone China or Russia, though both of these call for denuclearization.
South Korea certainly wants peace, contacts and reconciliation. Whether Seoul wants or believes in substantial reunification is another issue.
Whatever Kim wants, he is taking the initiative. The question is why now. U.S.-led global sanctions, including shutting down North Korea’s black market economic and financial mechanisms, have had a serious effect. South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in said in direct terms, “I am giving a lot of credit to President Trump” for Pyongyang’s offers of diplomacy.
In addition, reaching the point of weaponizing a long-range nuclear deterrent gave Kim confidence to break out diplomatically without appearing weak, especially if he believes the North’s only existential military threat is the U.S. Kim probably believes North Korea will be recognized sooner or later as a nuclear state because the alternative for his adversaries is a war that would be catastrophic for everyone. In this he may be correct.
All that said, given the new political movement, it’s worthwhile considering whether stability, reconciliation and at least a minimal Korean unification is not inconceivable.
Taking China as a model could be the right method. This does not mean a solution forced on the two Koreas by China. It means taking China’s “one country, two systems” approach as an example of a way forward.
The “one country, two systems” approach was proposed by China’s leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s for relations between the People’s Republic and Hong Kong and Macau. It was probably always also intended for Taiwan, which Beijing considers as a renegade province of the mainland.
The U.S. and other Western governments are still officially committed to the “one China” policy that states the PRC and Taiwan form a single country, with reunification the goal. Huge differences have developed politically, economically and culturally between the Mainland and Taiwan, yet Beijing has threatened force if Taipei were to declare national independence. Taiwan lives uncomfortably within this framework and some Taiwanese want to declare independence in spite of the dangers. The U.S. has a strategic alliance with Taiwan and provides it military equipment, which complicates relations between Beijing and Washington.
Nevertheless, “cross-strait” relationships have grown impressively. Trade and investment are large, and reciprocal tourism is a major industry, with visa requirements substantially reduced in recent years. Taiwanese businesses exist in many parts of China and hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese live in the People’s Republic, the largest contingent in Shanghai.
Deng Xiaoping, who, after his blood-soaked revolutionary years, turned out to be a pragmatist as China’s senior leader, argued that with so many problems on the Mainland there was no urgency to resolve the PRC/Taiwan relationship. Leave reunification to future generations.
In this context, what might a Chinese way forward for the two Koreas look like? Beyond significant increases in tourism, family reunifications and cultural exchanges, here are a few suggestions.
1. A meeting between the South Korean president and Kim Jong-un is set to occur in several weeks. The two leaders could present the goal of unification of the Korean people in a Chinese-style one Korea: “one country, two systems”. Meetings of higher and lower-ranking diplomats could be regularized.
2. While reunification in some sense is the goal, meantime, over many years, perhaps a couple of decades, rigorously negotiated and inspected practical agreements are the way forward.
3. Some general political framework would be set up to officialize permanent contacts, perhaps a loose confederation that either side could resign.
4. Economically, it should assume that North Korea is not an economic basket case but a developing country.
5. Politically, South and North are equal partners.
6. Military issues, first, the North’s nuclear deterrent. Two strategies are possible. One is to put Pyongyang’s nuclear (and biological) weapons into a separate but contemporaneous negotiation. The other is to integrate it with the other issues on the table in a single negotiation. In addition, dramatic reductions of conventional weapons must occur, both in number and location. The North’s artillery must move back from the demilitarized zone to get Seoul out of range.
7. Finally, and however unthinkable it seems now, North Korea as a country and a people should be given the perspective of being accepted into the international order. North Koreans must see that isolation and resentment is not their fate. Emerging from isolation with dignity is possible, even with the country’s bloody totalitarian history. Stalinist Russia and Maoist China are examples. South Koreans should be able to see the North’s opening as political-military stabilization, psychological relief and economic opportunity.
There are two views of a policy of engagement with North Korea. One is that engagement can’t work and amounts to a catastrophic reward of rogue behavior that threatens the U.S. If, as Machiavelli said, a necessary war is a just war, then better to do it now than fight it later under less favorable conditions. If North Korea’s nuclear deterrent is accepted, it becomes a success story for other countries such as Iran to emulate. The other view is that because it’s unlikely in the extreme that Pyongyang will denuclearize, a policy of containment and engagement is unavoidable, the logic being that there is still time to avert the worst case.
In recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Henry Kissinger said that North Korean full denuclearization must be a non-negotiable demand, although it might take time. But there must be concrete intermediate steps, not allowing Pyongyang to buy time as North Vietnam did in Vietnam War negotiations.
In the March-April 2018 of Foreign Affairs, Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner argue that China benefitted from American strategic miscalculation. “Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted.” “Engagement was coupled with a ‘hedge’—enhanced U.S. military power in the region, supposed by capable allies and partners.” But this approach didn’t work. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the Communist Party’s political repression has been intensified and China has advanced aggressively in economic, political and military terms.
Washington and its allies must avoid making a similar miscalculation in dealing with the Kim regime. The problem is that neither the U.S., Seoul or any other outside power seems to have a clear strategy.
In effect, everything depends on what the Kim regime wants. Does Pyongyang have a grand, long-term strategic goal or is Kim improvising as situations develop? Probably its only grand strategic principle is not negotiating its nuclear deterrent. Trying to take over the infinitely richer, more populous (50 million to the North’s 25 million) and well-allied South makes no sense.
It’s possible that Kim now wants reintegration and development rather than totalitarian isolation. His byungjin policy avows that, with the nuclear deterrent achieved, prosperity can now be emphasized. Indeed, there are commercial and residential property developments, water and amusement parks, and so on, in parts of the country, at least for the elites.
The question is whether Kim is interested in social development of his people. Maybe he is not. But if he is, then unification ideology could—over a period of years—justify gradual dismantling of repressive institutions. First among these would be the totalitarian labor camps. (A recent Brookings Institution paper by Jung H. Pak reports that about 200,000 North Koreans are prisoners in 30 gulag camps throughout the country.) China again could be a model.
As repressive as Xi Jinping’s government has become, the country is still far from a return to Maoism. The North Korean gulag is not eternal.