La Riposte

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Listen To Carter: “Listen to North Korea”

"Listen to North Korea..."
Plenty of talking heads are claiming that North Korea’s reasons for the recent revelations of secret uranium enrichment facilities and artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island are somehow mysterious.

Internal power struggles, a desire to show that the heir apparent is cut from the same cloth as his father, and a desire to extort concessions have all been raised as possible reasons – but it’s telling that no one has yet gotten (or appeared interested in getting) the North Korean side of the story.

Instead, the drums are being beaten loudly, although for what, it’s not quite clear. No country or coalition wants, or could really win another war on the Peninsula; and sanctions, the world’s go-to option for dealing with North Korea have proven useless to prevent their development of considerable conventional and nuclear capacity, and only serve to starve the population and provide a platform for the military regime in power to maintain its hold over the people.

But there’s one voice in the wilderness that should be listened to, and that’s coming from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. His letter to the Washington Post is well worth reading in its entirety, but in a nutshell, his message is simple.

North Korea wants bilateral talks with America to further “their desire to develop a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and a permanent cease-fire.” We should give them what they want – not because of their recent actions, but because it’s the right thing to do for long-term stability in the region.

The North is not going to suddenly collapse. That the single largest Communist republic fell in the 1990’s belies that fact that a host of others continued marching merrily on. China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea – all these countries have a much different set of demographics and geography than the Soviet Union did, and all are very much alive and well, despite varying levels of engagement with the U.S. and participation in the world economy.

Barring a collapse that simply won’t happen, the alternatives are:  
1.      To maintain the status quo; a nation of starving millions, with a powerful arsenal, poised between a pair of Asian economic powerhouses.
2.      Remove sanctions, establish trade, and take advantage of the excellent opportunities inherent in such a policy, while ignoring, for the time being, the nature of the government in power.

What advantages? Consider access to cheap North Korean labor, and the ability to connect South Korea directly with European and Russian markets via a high-speed rail connection through the North. The tracks for just such a line extend as far as the Kaesong Industrial Complex, located just north of the DMZ, where North Korea workers under South Korean management already manufacture a variety of products.

What does North Korea want? The same thing most people and countries want – a little respect. If you (or your country) was labeled as “evil”, subjected to sanctions (imagine not being allowed in a grocery store or bank, having your credit cards frozen, etc) how would you feel? Believe it or not, North Koreans are only human, too.

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When it comes to relations with North Korea (not to mention Cuba, Iran, and Myanmar) it’s high time for the United States to stop the insanity.


  1. So you think that South Korea should be excluded from talks designed to settle tensions on the North Korean peninsula?

    I don't mean to be overly snarky, but this is the intention of the North Korean demand for bilateral talks. Carter doesn't dwell on it, probably because it renders the idea of bilateral talks a bit absurd. South Korean preferences regarding a settlement with North Korea would have to be channeled through the United States; this is precisely "what North Korea wants" but hardly suggests that bilateral talks are a way to stabilize the peninsula. Rather, such an approach would appear to legitimize the North Korean claim that South Korea is effectively a puppet state.

  2. Mr. Farley, I believe that bilateral talks between the US and North Korea are a key part of a wider range of diplomatic actions, which would include a return to a Six-Party format for discussing denuclearization, and no doubt bilateral talks (and actions) in the economic and social spheres between North and South.

    However, the key importance to North Korea of a bilateral dialogue with the US is to obtain assurances that America will not seek to overthrow their government through the sort of “regime change” currently being publically advocated by various US politicians, or by overt military action.

    As Carter notes, there is the legitimate point as well that the peace that holds along the DMZ is, on paper, an agreement between the North Korean Army, and a United Nations Command whose signatory representative was a US Army general. It’s not a peace treaty between the governments of North and South Korea.

    And as the US military assumes control of all Korean forces in the event of a major conflict on the Peninsula, again, there’s a degree of legitimacy to Northern perceptions that the US is the nation that truly holds the military cards south of the DMZ.

    I hope this satisfactorily answers your question, which is certainly a legitimate one, and I appreciate your efforts to continue and expand the discussion.

  3. E,

    I appreciate the response, but I don't find it sufficient. There's little to indicate that the North Koreans view bilateral talks in the same way that you (and Carter) do, which is as a gateway to a return to the Six Party talks. Moreover, there is certainly no way that bilateral talks can provide assurance to the North Koreans that the United States will not pursue regime change; opposition politicians in the United States will remain free to advocate such a policy, which will in turn provoke hawks in North Korea, etc. Moreover, I don't agree that there's a degree of legitimacy to Northern perceptions of the South; the North has had ample opportunity to distinguish diplomatically between the United States and South Korea, and in the past (on many, many occasions) has done so.

    I am not at all convinced that all that the North Koreans want is "a little respect"; I rather suspect that they want a political, economic, and military settlement that favors there interests. The vehicle to accomplishing this is bilateral talks that exclude South Korea, and barring that military escalation that South Korea and the United States cannot provide a reasonable answer to. The best that can be said, in my view, for a return to talks of any kind is that there is no military option, but this isn't saying terribly much.

    There's certainly something to the idea of abandoning the assumption that North Korea will collapse; however, conceding North Korea's central diplomatic demand, on the immediate heels of a series of North Korean military escalations, hardly seems the way to proceed.

  4. Sir - we appear to have some grounds for agreement; I concur that North Korea seeks "a political, economic, and military settlement that favors there [sic] interests." That simply indicates that they are rational actors, for ALL countries seek settlements of such a nature. The degree to which they achieve their objectives is determined by the instruments of power at their disposal and their skill in wielding them.

    Similarly, I am happy to see that you will grant me that there is "certainly something to the idea of abandoning the assumption that North Korea will collapse."

    Your observation that negotiations should not come directly on the heels of an aggressive act by the North raises 2 points; first, it could simply be a condition of negotiations that they occur only after a suitable time has elapsed - just as a condition of the US withdrawal from Vietnam was based on assurances by the North that they would allow a suitable interval before overrunning the South. So, there's precedent. On the other hand, sometimes it is not in the interest of a country to ignore or postpone actions that are demanded by the military threats of another country. Saddam's Iraq gives a good example. Bowing to UN demands in the face of US military threats was certainly not palatable; time has proven that swallowing that bitter pill might have spared Saddam the noose and his country a decade of uncivil war. We don't think twice about the idea that a small, weak country should "logically" submit in the face of military threats by a superpower - but that the situation may be reversed seems difficult for most to grasp - even when the asymmetric nature of the facts on the ground (geography, distribution of forces, costs of probable outcomes) combines to favor the smaller nation.

    On the other hand, there are areas on which we clearly disagree - you write that "there is certainly no way that bilateral talks can provide assurance to the North Koreans that the United States will not pursue regime change" - but if a signed treaty or a summit-level agreement is not as concrete an assurance of non-aggression that one country can get from another, I'm not sure what is. Such an agreement would render the strident cries of hawks in both the US and North Korea to so much quacking.

    You seem to agree that there is no reasonable military option at this point, but do not share my view that lifting sanctions and engaging in bilateral negotiations are the way to go.

    Short of maintaining the status quo and wishing that North Korea will spontaneously return to the 6-Party table, what other path do you suggest the US take?

  5. E.,

    "Short of maintaining the status quo and wishing that North Korea will spontaneously return to the 6-Party table, what other path do you suggest the US take?"

    Sit and wait for a leadership (not necessarily regime) change in North Korea, and hope that such a shift results in appreciable change in North Korean behavior. This would involve cessation of military attacks on the South, as well as the recognition that any talks regarding the final status (which is what North Korea purports to seek) must include Seoul. Your (and Carter's) position seems to be that US intransigence regarding bilateral talks is the central obstacle; my reply is that the demand for talks that exclude Seoul is, in and of itself, an indication that Pyongyang is uninterested in any reasonable deal.

    I'm curious (perhaps you'll post on it later); does the Wikileaks release of materials on South Korean and Chinese attitudes towards a North Korean collapse shift your attitudes at all?