North Korean diplomatic offensives are usually short-lived and end in disappointment. Even so, it would be a mistake just to ignore Pyongyang’s recent signals that it would like to end its status as an international pariah.
Recently, North Korea has highlighted sports diplomacy (sending athletes to compete in the Asian Games counts, but I’m not sure meeting with a professional wrestler counts as sports). More seriously, Pyongyang has many Japanese people expecting genuine answers to what happened to a number of citizens abducted in the 1970’s and 1980’s. One hopes that North Korea is forthcoming with information and not simply pedaling old information for sanctions relief.
Yet, perhaps the most intriguing facet of its multi-pronged diplomatic effort to break out of its current isolation is the deployment of high-level envoys to Europe and the United States. Mind you, when Kim Jong Un has executed his uncle, it strains credulity that he would entrust real negotiation to senior diplomats.
The four-country European tour this month by Kang Sok Ju, the international secretary of the North Korean Workers’ Party, was launched with some fanfare, including a call for the implementation of past agreements involving the two Koreas. Forgive the cynicism, but no one outside Pyongyang has prevented the North from following through on its commitments, including its 2005 denuclearization pledge. The North has not just failed to denuclearize; it has accelerated nuclear proliferation through expanded nuclear and missile programs and tests.
Kang was present at the creation of the U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework nuclear deal in 1994. He was also at the center of a crucial meeting with his American counterpart in October 2002 when Kang admitted that Pyongyang was developing nuclear weapons from enriched uranium. The first agreement headed off conflict 18 months after the North created a crisis by threatening to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The second meeting arrested the diplomatic process.
So it would seem that Kang’s European tour is predicated on the idea that North Korea agrees with denuclearization in theory but not in practice. As the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck once remarked, “When a man says that he approves something in principle, it means he hasn’t the slightest intention of putting it into practice.”
The other top-level diplomacy is the announcement that North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong will attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York during the last week of this month. If all goes to plan, it would mark the first time in 15 years that North Korea has participated at the level of the Foreign Minister.
The North and South Korean missions to the United Nations are illustrative of the problem in a microcosm. Whereas the South Korean Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Oh Joon, works tirelessly on a myriad of issues before the global body, the North Korean mission is infamous for blocking and lobbying actions on anything that would directly affect North Korea’s position. Seoul punches above its weight as a middle power shaping a complex international system, while Pyongyang just punches at everyone who gets near it.
So the idea that North Korea can self-declare an end to its diplomatic isolation perpetuates the myth that the world should pay attention to the North’s words, not its deeds. Notwithstanding this harsh judgment, Foreign Minister Ri is most welcome in New York. Furthermore, South Korea, the United States and other responsible nations should sincerely hope that this visit to the Big Apple marks a positive turning point on the Korean Peninsula. But for that to be true, Minister Ri will have to back up words with actions.
North Korea needs to take steps, however modest at first, in the direction of peace.
Indeed, seldom has there been a better time for North Korea to surprise the world in a good way. After all, the world is beset with so many urgent crises—from Ukraine to ISIS to Ebola— that North Korea would be extremely wise to reverse its isolation through positive action. The investigation on Japanese abductees is a huge opportunity for North Korea and would give up nothing but very old information. Releasing the three Americans who are being held prisoner would represent a smaller but still important token of North Korean sincerity. Accepting some of President Park Geun-hye’s invitations for improving inter-Korean relations would be yet a third area for demonstrating a newfound commitment to peace.
Despite the overwhelmingly likelihood of failure, President Park and other world leaders have an opportunity and a requirement to periodically probe North Korean intentions. While few analysts believe North Korea would negotiate away its nuclear weapons, the notion that the leadership in Pyongyang could suddenly embark on a different and more peaceful path to the future cannot be precluded. After all, unlike democratic leaders, an authoritarian leader, such as Kim Jong-un would have a far easier time doing an about-face with respect to security policy.
Great statesmen (and stateswomen) seek to prevent conflict through a combination of negotiation backed by resolve and strength. President Park’s Trustpolitik has sought to balance international security and human security. But it takes two to tango, and it takes six to negotiate a framework for managing down North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. South Korea has remained open for business, and five of the six parties have, too. It’s time for North Korea to join the international community. But the price of admission is following through on commitments.