Monday, August 30, 2004

North Korea - Options, None Good

An intruiging op-ed in Mondays’ WaPost brings to light the oft-ignored question of North Korea and human rights, that is, how must human rights be considered, or ignored, in future dealings with Kim Jong Il. roberta cohen makes a persuasive case that human rights must be an integral part of talks moving forward, a case made more so when the alternatives are fully digested. From my admittedly underinformed perspective, there are 3 options for dealing with the DPRK:

1. Comprehensive talks as suggested by cohen, integrating diverse issues like the nuclear issue, economic programs, energy/food aid, and human rights.
2. Narrower talks focusing largely on the trade of nuclear capability/programs for a combination of diplomatic assurances (namely that the US won’t actively undermine the regime) and economic aid
3. The ‘axis of evil’ approach, as originally embraced by President Bush in 2001 involves posturing, brinksmanship, and perhaps more pragmatically hope for internal unrest or a coup leading to collapse of the current regime.

Option 1 is clearly the most palatable, but also the least likely to have meaningful impact. The North Koreans are proven master manipulators at the negotiating table, and every layer of complexity added to an already monumental task will only extend their ability to delay. Moreover, the human rights issues (democratization, international observers, etc…) that Cohen hopes for are nothing if not threatening to Kim Jong Il’s power structure. He is exceedingly unlikely to bargain the totalitarian nature of his state away, particularly when he knows that one single chip – nuclear weapons capability – in his possession overshadows all others on the table. Which leaves us at Option 2 – talks focusing on aid for nukes. A resolution here seems achievable – verification will remain the biggest stumbling block. But by handing over Kim’s most desperate need – foreign economic aid – do we risk ensuring the maintenance of his regime and thus the perpetuation of his ghastly, truly ghastly campaigns against the citizenry ?

The attraction of Option 3 becomes apparent. Threaten military action to somehow produce regime change in the short term. However, the threat is essentially empty given the human costs of an American first strike, and given Kim’s coddling of the military, a viable force for overthrow from within is unlikely to emerge. On the other hand, each day that passes with continued verbal jousting only affirms Kim Jong Il’s certainty that nuclear weaponry is his sole protection from the West, and encourages his haste to achieve said capability.

I return, grudingly, to Option 2. No responsible thinker could suggest ignoring human rights as it pertains to North Korea. But integrating these matters into negotiations at this stage is futile. Kim Jong Il is a madman in much the way Saddam Hussein is – fairly rational, within his own depraved and repugnant value system. The impasse today is predicated on a stalemate of existential threats: the threat of North Korean nuclear material in the hands of terrorists (or in the warhead of a Pacific-crossing missle) vs. the announced American intent to topple Kim Jong Il himself.

My hope is that by co-neutralizing both threats, we open the door to the slow liberalization process that is taking place today in China. Problems abound, but democracy, human rights, etc… are growing seeds in that fertile ground. Obviously, the counterpoint – that without the threat of American intervention, the DPRK leadership has no reason to consider human rights, is equally valid. But on some level the force of history – the slow march of democracy and human rights across the globe, is worth betting upon.

What solace this wager offers the 200,000 Koreans in labor camps today, I cannot say.

- LH


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