tighter sanctions in response to the country’s third nuclear test in the middle of February, offers a chance for the world to rethink its strategy towards the isolated nation. It is important to first understand North Korea’s current actions in the context of the recent leadership transition within the country. At the end of 2011, Kim Jong-il, who had ruled the country since 1994 passed away, leaving his son Kim Jong-un in power. While there were initially expectations that Kim Jong-un, who was educated for a time in Switzerland, might bring with him a fundamental change in North Korean diplomacy, these hopes have not come to fruition. Instead, it has become increasingly clear that the country’s leaders do not seek reform or cooperation with the rest of the world. Whether or not Kim Jong-un truly makes the highest-level decisions remains an open question, but in any case, it would seem that the country’s leadership has been striving to project an image of strength and defiance since Kim Jong-il’s death. Given Kim Jong-un youth and position as a largely untested ruler, recent demonstrations of the country’s military and scientific strength, however unacceptable they may be, are in many ways unsurprising. In response to North Korea’s series of provocations beginning last year, the United States has largely adopted a policy of punishment that attempts to further isolate North Korea through sanctions. Indeed, much of the world has adopted a similar approach, hoping that depriving the country’s leadership of resources will bring about a substantial change in behavior. However, there are serious flaws in a strategy whose goal is to isolate a country that is already hermetic, and North Korea has previously shown little interest in engaging constructively with the rest of the world. In contrast, from 1995 until 2009, the U.S. relied on incentives in the form of over $1.3 billion in food and energy assistance to help shape North Korean decision-making. During that time, there were instances of tangible progress, such as when the country demolished part of a nuclear facility in the summer of 2008, and tensions were arguably more subdued than they have been in the last several years. As unsatisfying as it might be to extend aid to a country that has repeatedly issued threats and defied the global community, assistance packages have proven more successful in guiding North Korean behavior than outright punishment. Whereas the threat of sanctions has tended to merely encourage acts of belligerence from North Korea, providing aid often mollifies the leadership, even if only for a time. Additionally, extending food assistance in the past has helped alleviate what appears to be a persistent humanitarian crisis within the country, and has likely prevented widespread starvation. In the longer term, the strategic appeal of food assistance becomes stronger. After all, much of the difficulty in dealing effectively with North Korea stems from the country’s lack of a strong civil society; the absence of a free populace that can make its own decisions gives the U.S. little leverage in trying to foster change within North Korea. Even so, simply ensuring that the country’s population no longer succumbs to continued famines is not only morally incumbent on the U.S. but is a requisite for helping to eventually build a stronger civil society. Uprisings such as those witnessed in Eastern Europe during the fall of communism and those in the Middle East more recently serve as a reminder that regime change requires internal pressure from a determined population. To be sure, North Korea appears very far from such a point, but the U.S. refusal to send assistance that could provide ordinary citizens with basic necessities only delays the hope of any internal change. While this refusal owes much to Kim Jong-un’s own actions, such as the failed rocket launch in April 2012, the lack of a food aid program during the last several years represents a burden that has fallen squarely on the very people within North Korea who lack empowerment. Besides revisiting its own policies, the U.S. could do much to influence the course of events within North Korea by sending the right signals to China, a benefactor of North Korea’s for decades. Recently, China has begun to understand the need to reign in North Korea’s leadership and even endorsed the U.N. resolution condemning the most recent rocket launch. Given that one of China’s greatest fears is the collapse of North Korea, which might prompt a refugee crisis and extend South Korea’s influence to China’s borders, the U.S. could express to China its own desire for the previous status quo. Few have benefitted from the present instability and uncertainty in East Asia, and for the U.S. to make clear to China that it merely wishes for a return to normalcy in the short term could make China that much more likely to moderate North Korea’s actions. Perhaps even more so than Iran, North Korea remains one of the most intractable foreign policy challenges of the day. The leadership of the country is at once both reclusive and demanding of foreign concessions, and any efforts to punish the North Korean government often fall on the impoverished population. The fact that world leaders have failed for years to produce a compelling solution is a reminder that in the short run, the former status quo of a totalitarian but constrained North Korea might have to pass as acceptable. Over a longer planning horizon, however, the U.S. must reconsider its current punitive approach, realizing that supporting the North Korean population in any way possible is not only a humanitarian necessity but a means of allowing bottom-up change to organically take form one day.  ]]>

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Heinz Journal

Heinz Journal

The Heinz Journal is a student-run publication of the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, dedicated to publishing works that link critical and theoretical analysis with policy implementation.

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