Broadening the Spectrum for Engaging North Korea: Could Military to Military Exchanges Be a Key to North-South Confidence Building?

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In this context, my next suggestion may seem dangerously radical. But if we are thinking outside the box, then one potential engine for pushing forward North-South relations that has been overlooked is military to military exchanges. Although recent incidents have made such exchanges more difficult, they are in a sense all the more vital for that very reason.

Engagement with the Korean People's Army (KPA) must be handled delicately, of course. We need to lure them to the table with economic incentives aimed directly at the military. The KPA has been trying to find sources of income for the last 20-odd years. They sold sand; they sold shrimp, they have even cut down trees in parks and looted graves for valuables. Actually, the North Korean military has been doing business with South Korea in one form or another for a long time. If we increase and formalize such business exchanges -- not the grave-robbing, obviously - we can create new structures of win-win mutual gain. We can even propose military to military talks for the purpose of pursuing business opportunities -- just as long as we keep the larger goal in mind.

We should not be naïve about our real options. The KPA is a power in the land in Pyongyang -- perhaps less so now under Kim Jong-un, so they may be all the more open to our offers -- and cannot be excluded from any engagement process, if that is to succeed. Here China offers a precedent. Deng Xiaoping was well aware of the danger of excluding the military from the process of reform, so he tried to include the People's Liberation Army (PLA) as a stakeholder from the very beginning. He gave the military all kinds of business opportunities, and those policies lasted into the 1990s. We need similarly to engage the KPA in business à la Deng Xiaoping. We cannot afford to have them left out, as this would send the dangerous message that there is no place for them in a post-unification peninsula.

We need to make an offer which is so compelling that even though they understand the implications and risks, they will want or feel compelled to go along with it anyway. Our former President Kim Dae-jung advocated such an approach in his Sunshine policy, and he had some success. Though the North was fully aware of South Korea's intentions in the Sunshine policy, it nevertheless could not resist participating in it. North Koreans are not naive, but if the economic incentive is strong enough, they will act.

Military-to-military dialogue between North and South has previously been difficult because of divergent perspectives within the ROK-US alliance. The United States looks at the Korea problem from a global perspective and thus has made the denuclearization process the primary task. South Korea shares that goal, but for it the larger goal of peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula is an even greater priority.

But if we think about the question in a more innovative manner, there is no reason why the United States military could not be involved in some part of the military-to-military dialogue between North and South. In fact, there could even be a military dialogue involving military representatives from the United States, South Korea and North Korea (I mean on a new and forward-looking basis, rather than the same countries' participation in Military Armistice Commission (MAC) meetings at Panmunjom which North Korea has effectively undermined.) Such a conversation between the stakeholders in the three countries could be a game changer, generating possibilities for innovative approaches that are unlikely to emerge from the rather cumbersome six party talks. Finally on this subject: If Washington can directly engage the KPA, as it has in the past in joint searches for the remains of US soldiers missing in action (MIA) from the Korean War, then why cannot Seoul do likewise?

The author is chairman and CEO of the JoongAng Media Network -- one of South Korea's leading media groups, including the prestigious JoongAng Ilbo daily -- and a former South Korean ambassador to the United States.