TOKYO – By restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba, Barack Obama clearly admitted that Washington’s five-decade-old strategy of isolating the Caribbean nation had failed. So why is the White House doubling down on a similar policy toward North Korea?
On Jan. 2, the president levied additional sanctions on Pyongyang for the alleged hacking of Sony’s computer network. The new measures are largely symbolic, targeting 10 officials and three state organizations the United States says play key roles in cyberattacks, weapons proliferation and other illicit activities. Yet there’s little reason to believe even stronger sanctions might unseat North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un – any more than they did his father Kim Jong Il or, for that matter, the Castro dynasty in Cuba.
As Obama himself has repeatedly said, there’s no point in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Instead, this may be the moment for the United States to take a chance on some quiet, deft diplomacy with the Kim regime.
Lost in all brouhaha over the Sony hack, Pyongyang has been dropping hints that it may be ready to bargain. On Jan. 1, Kim even raised the possibility of a one-on-one meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. It would be the first inter-Korean summit since Roh Moo-hyun visited Pyongyang in 2007 and dovetails with Park’s hopes for reunification of the Korean peninsula.
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Of course, this may be another feint from Kim, whose regime continues to deny any involvement with the Sony hack. But as North Korea experts like Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University point out, the younger Kim has recently begun to pursue the path of Chinese-style economic liberalization that his father doggedly avoided.
While recent reforms in agriculture and industry are crucial, as Lankov wrote on Dec. 23, “they cannot gather momentum without a large infusion of capital. Unlike during his father’s time, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea needs investment as a matter of economic and political survival.”
The U.S. should be able to exploit this need. Obama’s team has invested considerable time and diplomatic ingenuity in finding ways to slow Iran’s nuclear program, but relatively little on already nuclear-capable North Korea. Why not start by dropping, at least implicitly, preconditions to talks with Pyongyang?
There’s zero chance Kim will agree to give up his nukes outright; it would be smarter to move on and work around the issue. Obama should empower Secretary of State John Kerry to launch behind-the-scenes talks with Pyongyang, Cuba- style, holding out the possibility of a direct meeting with Kim as enticement.
In a recent op-ed, Harvard University’s Kenneth Rogoff explained why embargoes rarely work. In the case of North Korea, he writes, “one of the major reasons economic sanctions have fallen short in the past is that not all countries have complied.” So, next, Obama should get Chinese President Xi Jinping on the phone.
China has long seen a divided Korea as a useful way to keep its geopolitical rivals off balance. But its patience is clearly wearing thin: As Lankov notes, projects all along the Sino-Korean border lie stalled, presumably because Beijing has decided to scale back investment in North Korea.
Even if China doesn’t join hands with the U.S. directly, Obama should encourage Xi to pressure the North to negotiate in good faith, in return for possible renewed Chinese investment and trade concessions. If Obama could cajole the Chinese leader into signing a carbon-emissions deal, there’s no reason the two sides can’t find room to cooperate here, too.
Obama’s team also should get Seoul and Tokyo closely involved with outreach efforts. Aside from deepening the diplomatic pool, that would give Park and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe good reason to work together for a change.
I’m not suggesting the world reward the brutal Kim dynasty for its bad behavior. But as in Cuba, openness is more likely to erode the foundations of the North Korean regime than isolation. That’s where U.S. efforts should be focused, not on feel-good- but-futile sanctions.
Bloomberg View columnist William Pesek is based in Tokyo and writes on economics, markets and politics throughout the Asia-Pacific region.