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Three Dilemmas of Dealing with North Korea


By Mark Tokola

Short conversations about North Korea generally end with similar conclusions: it is too soon to tell whether Kim Jong-un has successfully entrenched himself; the North Korean economy whether by design or necessity has introduced some market elements; China is growing impatient with North Korea’s unpredictability and belligerency; and Kim Jung-un’s regime is even more brutal and repressive than his father’s.  The level of purges and numbers of executions is unprecedented, even for North Korea.  The regime’s fixation with building amusement parks while much of its population goes malnourished is the epitome of how far a dictator can place whims above necessities. That much, at least, attracts a consensus of opinion.

It takes a longer conversation to reveal the fault-lines and seams in opinion among experts regarding what should be done in regard to North Korea.  There is a weight of opinion, but without unanimity, that urgency is beginning to ratchet up.  The DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs are closer to producing weapons which can threaten other countries.  In truth, Seoul has been within the range of North Korean artillery for decades, but longer-range North Korean weaponry carrying nuclear warheads would alter broader, strategic equations regardless whether they could reach the United States. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights violations in North Korea is making it increasingly difficult for the international community to avert its eyes from the regime’s widespread and systematic abuses of its own people, which are likely to be counted as crimes against humanity.  The prospect of unification of the Korean peninsula is being discussed more seriously than it has been for years.  The most surprising outcome of the change that seems to be in the air would be if the situation on the Korean peninsula remained as it is for another generation.  Hence, the need to talk about North Korea with increasing seriousness.

Two such longer conversations about North Korea were held first, at the June 2-6 Salzburg Global Seminar on “International Responses to Crimes Against Humanity: The Challenge of North Korea,” and second, at the Annual Conference of the International Council on Korean Studies (ICKS) held at Georgetown University from June 25-26 on “Unification of the Korean Peninsula: Issues and Opportunities.”  The Salzburg Seminar was held under the Chatham House rule and therefore remarks by the participants are not to be publicly attributed to them without their permission, but what they discussed can be shared.  Confidentiality was necessary in order to have a free-flowing and frank conversation among the government and private sector experts who attended the seminar.  The Seminar ended with an agreed public statement outlining specific steps that should be taken by governments, private organizations, and concerned individuals to improve the human rights situation in North Korea. The ICKS conference by contrast was a public meeting and will be made available on the KEI website.

During long conversations among experts on North Korea, three questions often surface, the answers to which have practical consequences: Is it better to engage North Korea or to isolate it?  Is there a choice to be made regarding whether to prioritize North Korea’s strategic threat or its human rights record?  And, which is the higher goal, peace or justice?  The answer to each of the questions may be “It depends,” “That is a false choice,” or “This isn’t black and white, the best policy lies along a spectrum.”  In any case, the questions are not ones that can be ignored.

Engagement or Isolation?

If the goal is to change North Korea’s behavior, is that more likely to come about through interacting with the North Korean government, or through refusing to have anything to do with it until its behavior changes?  The answers depends upon a series of further, refining questions:  are we talking about government-to-government, diplomatic engagement? humanitarian assistance and other NGO engagement? or people-to-people engagement (and is that even possible with a country as totalitarian as North Korea)?

The question of diplomatic engagement already seems to have an answer.  Both the South Korean and U.S. governments have said that they are willing to engage in talks with North Korea.  President Park says she is prepared to hold talks without preconditions, but rejects North Korea’s requirement that U.S.-ROK military exercises be cancelled before it is willing to meet.  North Korea has called for “unconditional” talks with the U.S. but then conditioned the unconditional talks by saying that they would have to be held without reference to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  In essence, the path is open for diplomatic engagement should North Korea choose to take it.  Demanding that South Korea end its military exercise while continuing to conduct its own, and insisting that the U.S. abandon its primary objective, getting North Korea to abide by the international obligations it undertook regarding its nuclear program, seem to show a lack of enthusiasm for diplomacy on North Korea’s part.

An alternative might be to make unilateral gestures towards North Korea in hope that North Korea might respond positively.  It seems likely, however, that the Kim Jung-un government is not firmly enough on its feet to be able to respond to concessions, whether a reduction in sanctions or a pause in U.S.-ROK military exercises.  Absent a signal from Pyongyang that it was truly interested in a negotiation, a unilateral concession from Seoul or Washington would only reduce the number of bargaining chips available for future talks, making them more difficult.

For organizations that provide or might provide assistance to North Koreans, there are serious practical and ethical questions regarding their unavoidable interaction with the North Korean government.  On one hand, the humanitarian need for nutritional supplements and medicine is great.  The cost of saving a life in North Korea is less than in other struggling countries because the base line is so low.  On the other, does providing assistance merely serve to extend the life of an abhorrent regime?  Do outside resources allow it to channel its resources to prison camps and nuclear weapons programs?

One NGO has given up and pulled out of North Korea.  The problem was not that its resources were being diverted to the government, but that the government was controlling the population that the NGO in question was serving.  The government in effect chose the people whom the NGO would help.  The people being served were needy, but not the neediest or most vulnerable population in North Korea.  Because the baseline principle of the organization was that it would serve those most in need of assistance, it deemed that it could not continue.  Other organizations have decided otherwise, that providing assistance to anyone in need was worth doing if possible.

There are other considerations in deciding whether to engage with humanitarian assistance or not.  One is the theory of “feeding the executioner.”  The idea is that if the international community did not provide assistance to the needy in North Korea, neither would the North Korean government.  Belief that Pyongyang would fill the gap left by decisions of NGOs not to operate in North Korea is naïve.  In fact, the DPRK government would be more likely to extract what it could from its most vulnerable populations to support its programs rather than to assist them.  If everyone has enough food, the government will not have to take any from the people to give to the ruling class and army.  If everyone has too little, the government will take what it can from the population.  Providing humanitarian assistance, therefore, prevents the DPRK from further preying on its own people.

Finally there is the notion of investing in the future through humanitarian assistance.  Providing help to the people of North Korea now will make unification of the peninsula easier when it occurs.  A healthier, better-educated North Korean population will be easier to accommodate into a unified Korea than one that is stunted and unable to work.  In the end, everyone has to decide for themselves whether their engagement with North Korea is a good idea and what compromises they are prepared to make to achieve their goals.  The term “principled engagement” is often used.

Even people-to-people engagement is a tougher calculation than we would all wish.  It would be nice to think that all contacts that can be arranged with North Koreans — whether government officials, sports figures, or artists – are bound at least to give them a better impression of us, and at most to raise questions in their minds about the state of their own country and whether it might be different.  That may even be true.  However, there is another side to the argument.  The costs of people-to-people engagements may be that they give the North Korean government propaganda points to argue to their own people that the Kim Jong-un regime is indeed internationally accepted and admired.  Second, the DPRK has complete control over who gets to participate in people-to-people programs.  If they are being used to reward the party faithful, does that make them little more than treats which can be dispensed to maintain loyalty to the regime?  There is no easy answer.

The Strategic Threat versus Human Rights

So long at the DPRK argues that it will never abandon its nuclear weapons program and that its population enjoys the world’s highest level of human rights, there is no reason not to press the DPRK on both issues.  It should abide by its commitments to not pursue nuclear weaponry and should accept the UN COI recommendations on how to put an end to its abuses of the rights of its citizens.  It could, and should, do both.

However, it is possible to imagine a different situation.  What if the DPRK expressed a willingness to engage in negotiations on its nuclear program, but only if the international community would stop trying to undermine the government by charging it with human rights violations?  Why would members of a government who were being threatened with being sent to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity agree to negotiate with their prosecutors?  Being afraid to travel for fear of being arrested would make protracted negotiations impossible.

This is a dilemma that posits a situation different from the one we are in with North Korea, but among the DPRK’s few international defenders, there are voices who argue that the choice is already upon us.  We should accept right now the DPRK as a sovereign, “normal,” state rather than treating it as an outlaw.  Sanctions should be ended and serious negotiations should begin to reduce regional tensions.  After all, they argue, the greatest violation of human rights would be general warfare on the Korean peninsula rather than the selective if unfortunate actions by the DPRK against disruptive individuals in its quest to maintain domestic order.

One argument that may tip the balance towards those who argue that accountability for crimes against humanity cannot be negotiated away is the weight of international opinion.  The Six Party Talks have six parties because they (South Korea, North Korea, the U.S., Russia, and China) have the dominant stake in the strategic stability of the peninsula.  The circle of countries who have an interest in human rights is far broader.  It should be possible to enlist democracies such as India, South Africa, Brazil, and others in an international effort to pressure North Korea to improve its human rights situation.  Not only North Korea, but its chief patron, China, have shown sensitivity to wider international opinion beyond what the U.S. and its close allies have to say.  The human rights situation in North Korea is, or should be, a global concern.  That is reason enough to keep it on the agenda with North Korea.

Peace or Justice?

The call usually goes up for peace and justice, but what if they are not compatible in regard to North Korea?  This dilemma is similar to that of strategic threat versus human rights, but different.  It most likely would surface in regard to unification.  Under any unification scenario (usually boiled down to peaceful and negotiated, or following a collapse of the DPRK) it will be necessary to deal with the crimes against humanity that have been committed by North Korean authorities.  Will the priority be to quickly reach a peaceful situation by giving amnesty to those who might otherwise resist unification, or to give justice its chance to do its slower work to determine crime and punishment?  In the longer term, will the many North Korean mid and low-level authorities be given the right to resume positions of authority in a unified Korea, or will they be forever excluded?  Peace may argue one answer, justice another.

The UN’s COI report is legally correct in its carefully worded finding of “reasonable grounds to establish that crimes against humanity have been committed.”  The rule of law requires that the facts and judgment be weighed through a trial process, not though a presumption of guilt.  The “reasonable grounds” are strong enough that the COI recommends a Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court, but the report is light on naming names or identifying institutions of those who should be tried.  It is for this reason that a UNHCHR Field Office began operating in Seoul this June.  Its purpose is to collect evidence for use in  future prosecutions, whether international, Korea, or hybrid.

There is much to be decided in regards to eventually holding North Korean authorities accountable for crimes committed by the regime.  Which authorities, at what level, and with what degree of culpability should be tried and for what crimes?  This is an issue that will need to be decided primarily by the unified Korea, but the international community also has a stake in the prosecution of crimes against humanity.  The Nuremburg trials, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) are examples, if imperfect models, of how justice might be done.  Other countries that have emerged from conflict have opted for ‘peace and reconciliation commissions,’ to make sense of what they have been through.  Maybe in the case of Korea both will be needed: criminal trials to establish guilt among those most responsible for the human rights abuses, and peace and reconciliation organizations to help all Koreans come to terms with living in a shared Korea.

One future benefit of the justice system is that it will establish a common, evidence-based history of Korea from 1954 to the date of unification.  In the case of Yugoslavia, the ICTY has created an invaluable collection of first-person, sworn testimony offered by all sides that will help settle future disagreements about the true story of their tragic recent history.  One of the problems in dealing with the ongoing tensions in Northern Ireland is that there is no common historic database of fact shared by the unionists and the nationalists, leaving each with its own version of history.  The court records of the Korean human rights trials, when they come, will help people come to terms with their past better than any government-organized, official history.

Well-informed, well-intentioned people can disagree over how to deal with North Korea.  Discussing the common dilemmas can help them make their individual decisions.  The stakes are high.  Today’s decisions on engagement immediately affect the lives of people living in North Korea.  Coming to terms in advance with the issues that will follow unification will increase the odds that the process of unification will be less costly and painful than might otherwise be the case.  Unification of the peninsula will improve the lives of millions.  The process of getting there will require the best that South Korea and her allies can do.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Niels Sienaert’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.