The current progress towards possible resolution of the long-lasting nuclear
crisis on the Korean Peninsula is the result of the quite unlikely, somewhat
unexpected, and very definitely unsung American foreign policy success that is
the George W Bush administration's present strategy on North Korea.
After more than five decades of security crises, this bold new approach is
unraveling tension and (hopefully) building peace in one of the world's most
volatile hot spots.
So while both Senators Barack Obama and John McCain are running for president
as "change" candidates eager to leave the Dubya years behind - particularly
when it comes to salvaging America's position as global foreign policy leader -
they would be
well advised not to toss out the baby with the bath water.
Why is the Bush administration's policy of engagement so unlikely? Quite simply
because the US President has made no secret of the fact that he "loathes" Kim
Jong-il, North Korea's autocratic leader. North Korea was after all one of the
three "axis of evil" countries, along with Iran and Iraq.
It is also rather unexpected, because Assistant Secretary of State Christopher
Hill's decision to dump the previous policy of non-diplomacy, and deal with the
North Korean government as a party which could indeed be negotiated with, flew
in the face of the dominant "wisdom" of the insular circles that comprise
Also dumped was an out-of-date picture of North Korea that no longer represents
- if it ever did - the reality of North Korean society and economy. The view,
still presented by those who ought to know better, is that North Korea is
socially and economically static, with a brainwashed population incapable of
North Korea perhaps came close to this sometime in the 1950s and 1960s, when
the socialization process lauding the Kim family was at its most intense, and
the government could afford to insulate most North Koreans from the
Today, North Korea is a different country. It is still poor and politically
repressed, but its people no longer rely on the state, as it has been unable to
feed them or provide a living wage for two decades. During and after the famine
of the mid 1990s, which killed up to a million people, North Koreans
increasingly engaged in private market transactions for survival purposes.
Today, the myriad official and unofficial opportunities for private market
transactions provide their primary, and usually only, way of obtaining food and
The majority of North Korea's 23 million people have long given up on the
government as an economic provider and equally abandoned any idea there
anything worth preserving in the political system. As a result, the North
Korean state is now far more motivated to seek security, and an economic deal,
in order to help restore its legitimacy in the eyes of its own people
Thanks to an endemic poverty of analysis, the conventional wisdom in Washington
failed to comprehend the scope of this socio-economic transformation, which is
both the cause and the consequence of the wholesale, irreversible and embedded
"marketization without [political] liberalization" of today's North Korea.
The basic function of diplomacy, the very essence of which is to negotiate
agreements with adversaries, was almost forgotten until it was revived by Hill
and his team. The crazy policy of seeing war as the only instrument of
statecraft, and all diplomacy as "appeasement," shows an appalling ignorance of
history and realpolitik.
This perspective became dominant, however, because it was shared by a rather
unholy alliance founded on a neo-conservative agenda which supported regime
change by any means because of human rights abuses. Under this doctrine dealing
with North Korea was akin to supping with the devil.
The emergence of Hill's new approach is an unsung success story, because there
are still many on Bush's side of the aisle who are privately - and publicly in
the case of stalwarts like John Bolton - horrified at the thought of the United
States doing any deal whatsoever with a regime they consider a reincarnation of
Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia combined.
As a result, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice must strive in this election
year to maintain Republican unity by downplaying the significance of how far
negotiations have come. Neither is it in the interests of the Democrats to laud
a Republican administration's success in any arena.
With a new president looking to distinguish himself from the previous
administration, the temptation may be to shift towards a 'new' way of dealing
with the issue. But a return to the failed policies of the past would mean more
stalemate and more tension. North Korea would probably being producing more
nuclear bombs, the North Korean people would continue to be denied the external
investment they need for recovery, and the country would persist with rejecting
human rights dialogue.
Some might find it uncomfortable to celebrate a Bush administration foreign
policy success. If so, how about thinking about what is happening on the Korea
front as a victory for American diplomacy?
So far it is Obama who seems to have the least problems operating a bipartisan
foreign policy - his work with Senator Richard Lugar on controlling arms
proliferation sets a useful precedent. Ironically, it is McCain who may likely
want to renounce the Bush administration's success in foreign policy. He may
think that "talking tough with dictators" might give him a campaign edge - no
matter how much this has proved a failed policy in Korea for over half a
Not all change is good, and change for the sake of change is an empty policy.
The message for Senators McCain and Obama? When it comes to North Korea policy
- if it ain't broke, don't fix it!
Dr Hazel Smith (Hazel.Smith@warwick.ac.uk) is professor of
international relations at the University of Warwick, UK. She spent nearly two
years living in North Korea while working for the UN's World Food Programm and
UNICEF. Currently a visiting fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii, her
recent books on North Korea include Hungry for Peace; International
Security, Humanitarian Assistance and Social Change in North Korea (USIP press,
2005) and Reconstituting Korean Security (UN University press, 2007).
Opinions expressed are her own. Opposing viewpoints are welcome.