I give enormous credit to the creative thinking that led the South Koreans to offer North Korea not just food aid, but also significant amounts of electricity if the North gives up its nuclear weapons. The surprising offer was enough to get the North Koreans back to the six-party negotiating table, although it remains to be seen whether the North plans to negotiate in anything like good faith.
I’m not an expert on the North Koreans, but it seems to me that their demands and concerns have stayed remarkably consistent over time, at least in recent years. Reuters today, quoting from Xinhua, reported an official of the North Korean Foreign Ministry as saying, “Not a single nuclear weapon will be needed for us if the U.S. nuclear threat is removed and its hostile policy of ‘bringing down the DPRK’s system’ is withdrawn.” This is in line with previous North Korean statements focused on the threat that they justifiably feel from the large U.S. military presence on their border, coupled with our tough talk about the evil of their regime.
Of course, the United States can’t withdraw its nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula because we don’t have any there (or at least that’s been our line for years, though there are dissenting views). In any case, nuclear-armed submarines and missiles on Okinawa could make quick work of Pyongyang if we so chose, and North Korea is not likely to get us to withdraw all our nukes from the region, especially because of our security commitments to Taiwan. Nor are we likely to satisfy the North Koreans by withdrawing our troops from the peninsula, or even from the DMZ.
Nevertheless, there is plenty that we can do, much of it at minimal actual cost. We could, for example, end the Korean war. To us, the distinction between armistice and peace is irrelevant, and we would be watching North Korea closely either way. But to the North Koreans it would be deeply meaningful. The North Koreans’ evident satisfaction at being called a “sovereign state” by various American officials is a reminder that such recognition has not always been forthcoming. Keep in mind that we only allowed North Korea to join the United Nations in 1991, and it was in 1994 that we nearly went to war with them. One can see why they’re nervous, and we could reassure them that our goal is not to topple their regime or destroy their country, but to coax them toward liberalization.
In such a context, the South Korean electricity offer is a step in the right direction. What is needed, above all, is economic engagement with the North, which would gradually raise living standards — and expectations — among its people, at the same time creating webworks of interdependency that would make bellicosity too costly. I have read that many North Koreans want a war with the South, and soon: they are starving anyway, they figure, and they’ve always been told such a war is inevitable, so if they have to die, they might as well get it over with. Even a small amount of economic opportunity would go far in alleviating this popular sentiment in favor of suicide.
This is, more or less, the model that the West followed with China, and it has been enormously successful. No, China is not democratic, and yes, it violates human rights on a massive scale. But hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from dire poverty to middle-class comfort, while China’s complex economic interdependence with the West means that it must consider the consequences before it makes any dramatic move. And certainly a North Korea that resembled today’s China would be a massive improvement on what we’ve got now.
This kind of engagement with North Korea can only happen if the United States is willing to assure the North that its survival is not in doubt. I don’t see why this should be a problem so long as North Korea agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons and allow thorough inspections for verification. We could still keep our troops at the ready, and there is nothing in such an assurance that would stop us from defending South Korea, or anywhere else, should the North Koreans commit an act of aggression. At present, our main motivation for attacking the North first is to disable its nuclear weapons. If they give them up, why shouldn’t we give a security assurance?
The talks begin on July 25. We’ll see what comes of them.