South Korea in the Driver’s Seat

19 Apr

20111111coreas.png Stephen W. Bosworth, former U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea (and a whole lot of other positions) lays out a refreshingly geopolitical take on North Korea…

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…and then concludes, that South Korea is taking a much more assertive role these days in the R.O.K.-U.S. approach to North Korea. It’s no surprise he mentions China’s preeminent role, or even that Japan has dropped out. But, if it’s South Korea vs. China, then, if what R.O.K. Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik is saying is any indication, it’s rough times ahead.

Speaking at a talk with ministry journalists Wednesday morning, Yu said he planned to continue with the approach of increased flexibility in spite of the rocket launch.

“We will continue allowing humanitarian support by private NGOs and assistance to vulnerable segments through international organizations. The offers for dialogue still stand if North Korea accepts sincerely,” he affirmed.

Yu added that the government had not given up hope of improving inter-Korean relations and wanted to leave some room for North Korea to “proceed onto the right path.”

(…)

Yu also said the government would proceed with the necessary sanctions, coordinating closely with the international community.

Regarding the nature of the sanctions, Yu said the government would “withhold its efforts to expand flexibilization measures.

“We are unlikely to branch out from inter-Korean religious and artistic interchange into the areas of sports and academics, and we will have to undertake a somewhat flexible reexamination of the previous exchange and cooperation efforts,” he added.

If anyone can translate this, please post a comment. No strateic vision here, which is definitely something China has. The R.O.K.- U.S. side seems adrift. Does anyone know something about the vision thing?

So how should we treat such a petulant, yet dangerous, child? The strategy thus far can best described as putting North Korea in a corner, peppered with name calling and taunting on the part of the Western media. The nonproliferation regime has attempted to isolate North Korea and treat it as an anomaly and example of what not to do (this one’s for you, Tehran). But beyond this, Western engagement needs to draw lessons from other cases and pursue exit strategies from the current cycle of inertia with North Korea. Clearly it would be perfunctory to equate North Korea to the Soviet Union; however, the rapprochement between Reagan and Gorbachev offers insight into alleviating tensions between former adversaries under the tensest of conditions. In totalitarian regimes, change of leadership can be a once in a lifetime opportunity. These recent provocations suggest Kim Jong Un is likely to follow his father’s pattern of behavior, however what if he was given an alternative? What if he has the potential to become North Korea’s Gorbachev?

What would Reagan do with Kim Jong Un? With some extrapolation, we can identify four principles from Reagan’s strategy of engagement with the Soviet Union that could offer guidance, assuming the United States remains engaged either on a bilateral or multilateral level, regardless of the fate of the Six Party Talks. The United States sought to address sources of Soviet insecurity, which is exactly what must drive any strategy hoping to halt the current trajectory of relations with North Korea. First, Reagan emphasized the importance of linkage. He bundled together four initiatives with which to engage the Soviet Union and pursued them in parallel. This served to lay a diplomatic groundwork, which must be the first step for North Korea. Such a linkage strategy could include human rights efforts and economic collaboration with South Korea, along with efforts in the nuclear realm, such as allowing in IAEA inspectors. Second, even before Gorbachev came to power, Reagan tested the waters of rapprochement by taking small steps and sending subtle signals that he was not content with the status quo and open to improving relations. In the case of North Korea, small steps will likely need to come from China rather than the West, but Pyongyang should be made to understand the status quo is unacceptable and there are alternative means of regime security, international engagement, and domestic control. Third, Reagan did not ignore bad behavior, such as the downing of a South Korean passenger airliner, and would not sacrifice long-term visions for short-term diplomatic gains. The West should not merely roll its eyes at recent North Korean provocations, as this could tempt Pyongyang to resort to increasingly aggressive actions. Instead, the United States can revisit and, if necessary, reinstate the Bush-era targeted sanctions against the military and political elites, along with rescinding the Leap Day agreement. And finally, Reagan maintained a strategic vision throughout the ups and downs of engagement with Gorbachev, namely the desire for reciprocal reductions in nuclear weapons and a more peaceful world order. For North Korea, the West should not lose sight of the primary objectives – to uphold the nonproliferation norm and improve stability in the region.

Is it that bad, that Ronald Reagan can be associated with coherence and reasonableness?

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