Career: Assistant Professor | University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee | Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
North Korea: An Evil Country or Just a Trouble Maker?
Since North Korea established its regime in 1948, it has been recognized as a threat by the United States. In addition to the Korean War, several episodes in an ongoing nuclear weapons crisis provide examples of this. However, the North Korea issue should be considered a problem for Koreans, not Americans, to solve. This is all the more so because such an approach would be also beneficial to the United States.
Let’s start with the U.S. side of the story. When dealing with North Korea, the Unites States government has two basic options: a hard-line policy and a soft-line policy policy. An example of the hard-line approach is treating North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil.” Such an approach focuses more on sanctions and presupposes a bilateral relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. On the other hand, a soft-line policy considers North Korea as a potential negotiating partner and focuses more on incentives such as money and food. This second option also utilizes the involvement of other countries such as China, Japan, and Russia.
While these two policies are the main options that present themselves to the American government, the most important policy objective for South Korea is unification with North Korea. South Korea is not naïve about threats from its northern neighbor, but these are not viewed as life-threatening. The main issue facing South Koreans today is unification. They approach this while keeping in mind the lesson from Germany, namely, “Unexpected consequences might ruin us.” Obviously, unification without a big cost is the most preferable option for South Koreans.
So how should North Korea be understood? The first and the most important thing to keep in mind in this regard is that today North Korea is primarily concerned with its survival, not destroying others. Consider the economic and the military power of North Korea. It is the most closed society in the world, and it is one of the poorest as well. To be sure, it does have dangerous weaponry, but the U.S. obviously has much more. From North Korea’s perspective the problem is that it is threatened by the U.S. in such a manner that it must think about how to survive.
Given this, what might be an appropriate solution for the Koreans? In my view, the general goal should be to promote unification without threatening North Korea. Unification with a sudden collapse of North Korea is not good for either of the two Koreas.
One way to achieve peaceful unification is to be proactive in the systematic installation of social infrastructure in North Korea that would reduce the economic shock that will come with change. The two Koreas should be meeting, talking, and working as often as possible, so that they can make North Korea feel free from threat and encourage it to reach out and cooperate with other countries.
The question, then, is, “How might this be valuable to the U.S.?” In one scenario the U.S. could pursue a soft-line policy that would give North Korea something to lose if it did not respond. If it responds to this, it is foregoing the use of extreme options. Then the U.S. could use the negotiation leverage to gain even more. On the other hand, in pursuing a hard-line policy, the U.S. actually encourages North Korea to use extreme options such as developing a nuclear weapon. This in turn would lead the U.S. to feel more threatened and in a position for both sides to lose more.
Choosing a soft-line policy would actually help the U.S., along with North and South Koreans. South Koreans want to deal with North Korea by pursuing unification without threatening North Korea. Why does the U.S. come in suddenly, make statements that startle North Korea, and force South Korea to pay an unnecessary price? Why is the U.S. continuously threatened by something they themselves have created? There is another approach that promises to be more productive: How about engaging North Korea through less threatening dialogue and action!