[Column] Isolationism, Sanctions, Coercion, Hostages and Dictatorship in North Korea

Posted on : 2013-09-05 10:55 KST Modified on : 2013-09-05 10:55 KST
U.S. Foreign Policy and Leadership on North Korea continue to be ineffective

By Roland Wilson   

North Korea’s dynastic dictatorship has increasingly used the threat of war, asymmetric provocations and when little else works, the kidnapping of foreigners in order to force dialogue and recognition, gain the upper hand in negotiations and extract concessions out of the international community. In response, led by the United States, the West has equally increased its use of isolationism and sanctions on North Korea in an effort to force change on the regime. The exception to this rule has been the occasional overtures by the U.S. to win the release of its citizens held captive in North Korea. However, the overall foreign policy approach and leadership efforts of the United States are static and have not resulted in significant changes in North Korea or its behavior. The conflict with North Korea remains deep-rooted and protracted, with the threat of becoming extremely destructive at any moment.

It is admirable and just for the United States to push for and in some cases, go to North Korea to win the release of such hostages as U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, Christian missionaries Robert Park and Aijalon Gomes, businessman and Christian missionary Eddie Jun, and now tour operator and Christian missionary Kenneth Bae. Except for the latest case with Kenneth Bae, all of these hostages were successfully released after prominent Americans, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights Robert King, visited North Korea. Yet, despite these case-by-base limited efforts, the U.S. still does not fully or consistently engage with North Korea. With North Korea’s provocative and real threats at new levels and with no foreseeable change in the regime or its actions, one must ask: Why has there been no real or consistent change in U.S. lead foreign policy efforts towards North Korea?

While UN resolutions and sanctions may be somewhat effective at slowing down North Korea’s progress on weapons of mass destruction and proliferation, they have had little effect on its actions and the survival of the regime and its elite. In addition, these same resolutions and sanctions have in many cases unintentionally exacerbated the conditions of the same vulnerable group of North Koreans that is suffering from deprivation, malnutrition, disease and starvation, and which various NGO’s, humanitarian groups and others are trying so desperately to assist. As in many other parts of the world including Iran and Syria, outside of all-out war, the North Korean case should serve as a harsh reminder of the difficulties in trying to influence or change the actions of another state through isolation, external force and coercion. This is especially true of a recalcitrant dictatorship that holds onto power by defying international norms and forcefully controlling its citizens by means of extreme structural violence and numerous human rights violations. The bottom line, resolutions and sanctions, and threats of force and coercion are not very effective foreign policy tools. Hard power in itself, or when used with limited Track I diplomacy, just does not work. It only reinforces the status quo.

With this in mind, there are numerous foreign policy tools in the spectrum that can be effectively used to interact with and positively influence North Korea, including the power of public diplomacy, non-governmental led cultural, educational and economic exchanges and various peace building approaches. In the field of conflict analysis and resolution, it is widely recognized that in order to truly transform the dynamics of a conflict towards peace, one should simultaneously use multiple diplomatic tracks, non-governmental efforts of intervention, and people-to-people dialogue and engagement over a long and sustained period of time.

Another approach derived from contact theory asserts that continuous engagement and coordinated dialogue across various levels of society work to reduce prejudice, bias and misunderstanding, which can positively influence change. These various tools and approaches should also be well coordinated, holistic, and dynamic. While these efforts may seem difficult given the regime’s isolation and the current animosity that exists on both sides, there is good precedent for these actions amidst such tension and distance.

In the late 1950’s, at the height of the Cold War and the real threat of nuclear war with the former Soviet Union, the U.S. quietly used many of these foreign policy and conflict resolution tools including meeting with Soviet government officials; conducting educational exchanges under the Fulbright Program such as the one by the late Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev-known as the godfather of glasnost; and by having cultural exchanges such as the one by the late renowned U.S. pianist Van Cliburn who captured the hearts and minds of Soviet Citizens with his musical diplomacy. Also, in 1972, it was Ping-Pong diplomacy with the People’s Republic of China, which helped thaw relations with the United States. Along with these government-led efforts, there were continuous public and private efforts by schools, NGO’s and other private citizens to bridge the cultural and ideological gaps of prejudice and mistrust that existed between these countries. After long-term diversified and coordinated efforts of engagement, the outcomes in both these cases were the same-a dramatic and positive change in the relationships with these two countries. Furthermore, in both cases, the U.S. had embassies located in each county that helped to diffuse many tense situations, something we do not have in North Korea.

Sports diplomacy is also an effective tool for bringing countries and their citizens closer together, and is as old as the first Olympics held in Athens, Greece. When properly used, it can break down the walls of mistrust and transcend the barriers of language and culture while creating new and lasting relationships. Sports diplomacy has been successfully used in many parts of the world including South Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Although Dennis Rodman‘s trip to North Korea was problematic on multiple fronts, this trip should have served as a wake-up call to the U.S. that it’s not using all the available foreign policy and conflict resolution tools. The U.S. continues to focus its efforts on sending strong signals to North Korea that it is well capable of defending its allies and interests in the region, which alone only further increases tensions and the possibility of escalation.

There is no easy solution to this protracted conflict and a strong military presence is indeed necessary to defend freedom, national interests and allies in the region. However, this should not usurp our foreign policy and outreach efforts. Furthermore, as a country, strength and greatness should be measured in peace made instead of the ability to coerce and use force. Moreover, with a young relatively unknown and inexperienced Kim Jong Un leading North Korea, this is the time that the outside world should be trying to affect and influence his thinking before those in his inner circle guide him to a point beyond the possibility of engagement.

The U.S. must show true international leadership and initiative by considering multiple alternative ways to defuse tensions and continuously engage North Korea, both officially and unofficially. Even though these efforts will most likely take time and initially be met with distrust, suspicion and rejection on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, as were the cases for the former Soviet Union and China, they are our best options for avoiding war, helping North Koreans, preventing the detention of U.S. citizens and eventually achieving mutual understanding, positive change and peace on the Korean Peninsula.


The views presented in this column are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Hankyoreh. 


About the Author: Roland B. Wilson is currently a Doctoral Candidate at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University focusing on East Asia conflicts, diplomacy, peace and humanitarian issues. For about 27 years, he worked and extensively wrote on Asia Pacific and Northeast Asian military, foreign policy, public diplomacy and conflict issues as both a former Marine and U.S. Government worker. He can be reached for comments at: roland_wilson@hotmail.com


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