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Five Issues Ban Ki-Moon Should Raise If He Goes to North Korea


By Troy Stangarone

After rumors that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would soon travel to North Korea were followed by denials that any trip was in the works, the Secretary General’s office acknowledged that discussions were ongoing for him to visit North Korea. Much as with his proposed trip to Kaesong earlier this year, any agreement to visit North Korea could be canceled at any moment. However, if Secretary Ban is able to travel to North Korea and meet with Kim Jong-un it could represent a turning point in North Korea’s attitude towards the outside world.

Since Kim Jong-un rose to power in early 2012, the only head of state to have visited North Korea is Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, the president of Mongolia, whom Kim chose not to meet.  Kim Jong-un also passed up invitations from Russia and China to take part in anniversary celebrations of the end of World War II. At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping has given him the cold shoulder, while instead warming relations with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye.

In the past, Secretary Ban has expressed his willingness to become involved if it would help inter-Korean relations: this would provide an opportunity to see if the two Koreas could build further on the progress that came out of August’s incident in the DMZ and the recent family reunions. However, as the first world leader to meet Kim Jong-un and given how little is truly known about him, the meeting would be significant in itself.

“Mr. Ban Goes to Pyongyang”

Unlike the Jimmy Stewart movie about how one man changes Washington, Secretary Ban is unlikely to be able to foster much change in North Korea. He instead is perhaps best placed to play the role of an intermediary between North Korea and the international community. However, there are five issues that he should raise if he is able to visit North Korea:

North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons

Secretary General Ban almost certainly would raise North Korea’s nuclear program, which is the primary issue of international concern for the United Nations. While Secretary Ban should encourage North Korea to return to the Nonproliferation Treaty, let IAEA inspectors into the country, and return to talks to address international concerns about North Korea’s growing nuclear program, Secretary Ban should also make clear that the United States is not an obstacle to talks if North Korea is genuine about engaging.  Under President Obama, the United States has opened formal relations with Cuba and Myanmar, two nations  it had shunned in the past, and negotiated the recent nuclear agreement with Iran, another nation which the United States had sought to isolate in the international community.

Missile Tests

Related to the nuclear issue is North Korea’s ballistic missile program. Shortly after Kim Jong-un came to power, North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test under the guise of a satellite launch. The test violated a UN ban on ballistic missile tests and an agreement with the United States which placed a moratorium on long-range missile tests known as the Leap Day Agreement. Earlier this year, North Korea suggested it might again conduct a satellite launch and has declared a no sail zone off its eastern coast for November 11 through December 7. Secretary Ban should raise this issue with North Korea and remind it that it has an obligation to both refrain from ballistic missile tests and to notify the UN International Maritime Organization prior to any test, something which it did not do upon issuing the order domestically.

Respecting the Armistice Agreement

This August, North Korea placed landmines in areas of the DMZ patrolled by South Korea resulting in injuries to two South Korean soldiers. This was a violation of the Armistice Agreement, which is overseen by the United Nations. Secretary Ban should remind North Korea of its responsibility to respect the Armistice Agreement and maintain peace on the peninsula.

Human Rights

In light of the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report on human rights abuses in North Korea, the issue of human rights has become more prominent. If Secretary Ban is able to meet Kim Jong-un, he should encourage him to engage with the international community on steps that North Korea could take to improve human rights. He should also encourage North Korea to meet with U.N. special rapporteur for North Korea Marzuki Darusman, whom North Korea has so far not allowed to visit the country. Secretary General Ban should also encourage North Korea to take such steps as addressing the abductee issue with Japan and the repatriation of remains with parties to the Korean War to help improve relations in the region.

Inter-Korean Relations

As the first Korean Secretary General of the United Nations, improving inter-Korean relations is a natural area of interest for Secretary Ban. There are many areas where the two Korea’s could seek to improve relations – increased economic exchange, regularized political meetings, and increased cultural exchanges. However, one pressing area that Secretary Ban should consider discussing with North Korea is the area of family reunions. As more Koreans with relatives on either side of the DMZ succumb to old age the ties of family that will help to bind a reunified Korea will begin to fade if they are not rekindled. Regularizing and accelerating the process of family reunions and taking steps such as the proposal to allow the exchange of letters between families would help to keep these ties from fading.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director of Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the United Nations Photo’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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