Time to re-think North Korea

North Korea’s launch of a satellite into space on February 7 is the latest display of Kim Jong-un’s utter disregard for the international community’s call to stop developing nuclear capabilities. In the days leading up to the launch the White House urged Chinese Ppresident Xi Jinping to use his influence to stop Kim Jong-un, to no avail. Last Wednesday, U.S. Senate leaders unanimously passed new targeted sanctions following a similar measure that passed the House of Representatives.

While the latest sanctions measure may be necessary, the current strategy of imposing additional sanctions while relying on China and the U.N. Security Council to deal with North Korea raises some fundamental questions about US strategy overall. Why, for decades, have efforts led by the United States failed to stop North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons? And what can the Korean American community do to pressure the US government to consider North Korea as an urgent foreign policy objective.

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Americans of Korean descent share the same ethnic identity and ancestry with Koreans all around the world, including North Koreans. When we think of North Korea, certain indelible images come to mind. Starving children picking up scraps of food in markets. Desperate men and women who risk their lives to escape to China by swimming across the Tumen River. North Korean defectors living in the shadows in South Korea, many of whom are struggling to assimilate.  

To be ethnically Korean is to recognize a bit of ourselves in the faces of North Koreans we see on documentaries, movies, and books. Despite this personal connection, most Korean Americans have not done nearly enough to articulate an alternative vision for U.S.-North Korea relations.   

One reason is the lack of agreement within the Korean American community about what should be done. But an equally important reason is the community’s sense that North Korea is not a priority for the United States. I believe this has to change for three reasons.

First, the human cost of maintaining the status quo is unconscionably high. The suffering of the North Korean people under the Kim dynasty over the past sixty years is well documented. In 2014, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK produced a 400-page report documenting “unspeakable atrocities” unparalleled in the contemporary world. Yet in the face of mounting evidence the Kim Jong-un regime continues to commit crimes against humanity toward its people with apparent immunity.

Second, waiting for North Korea to denuclearize has not worked. As much as we want North Korea to change, they will not denuclearize any time soon given what it means to the regime’s legitimacy and self-perceived survival. Policymakers might point to the “Leap Day Agreement” in 2012 in which North Korea agreed on a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests in exchange for food assistance to argue that a nuclear deal with North Korea is possible. Ultimately, the North Koreans reneged on that deal. Since then, the Obama Administration’s position has been that unless North Korea shows it is serious about denuclearization, there will be no direct talks. But non-engagement over the long run will inevitably lead to a fully nuclear-armed North Korea, which will then make this position irrelevant.  

Third, the current approach of so-called “strategic patience” has meant that North Korea has been a low priority for the U.S. government. Since the “Leap Day Agreement,” and arguably throughout both the Bush and Obama administrations, there have been no major efforts to challenge underlying assumptions about Pyongyang, explore new avenues for engagement at the people-to-people level, or break down siloed thinking that could lead to a peaceful solution to North Korea.  

There will never be a good time to deal with North Korea. But as the recent rocket launch demonstrated, “kicking the can down the road” will become increasingly perilous. It is time for us to let go of preconceived notions about what is or is not possible with North Korea. What we need now more than ever is creative, outside-the-box thinking, including engagement with North Korea, to prevent the current situation from getting worse. 

Yoon is executive director of the Council of Korean Americans, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of Korean American leaders.

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