Time for a New Approach: Re-thinking U.S. Engagement with North Korea

High quality 3d render of North Korea with Nuclear Warhead. Clipping path included.MORE LIKE THIS:
High quality 3d render of North Korea with Nuclear Warhead. Clipping path included.MORE LIKE THIS:

North Korea has done it again.

With its latest nuclear testing of an alleged H-bomb, it has overshadowed its egregious violations of human rights, garnered global attention to re-establish itself as a serious international threat, and reminded the world that we need to do something, anything, about North Korea because its bizarre antics are far from coming to an end.

The question has always been and remains: But what? What can be done about North Korea?

After all, there is rarely any consensus when it comes to policies regarding North Korea. Although recently, it has been undeniable that current US policies are not working. This latest nuclear test is simply a culmination of policies which even key Republicans have called an "abject failure".

It is well past the time to try another approach and to re-think US policies towards North Korea. The "oops, I did it again" refrain being carried out by the North Korean regime is not funny and must be stopped. Similarly, the repetitive rhetoric of sanctions and condemnations lack any sense of creative innovation nor do they have any actual impact. Most importantly, the plight of the North Korean people is continuously being forgotten despite the documentation of ongoing atrocities which "shock the conscience of humanity" and amount to crimes against humanity.

What most experts fail to recognize is that the nuclear threat of North Korea goes hand-in-hand with its threat to international human rights. Indeed, failing to keep North Korea accountable for its systemic and brutal human rights violations, including a failure on behalf of the international community to follow through with the recommendations made by the UN Commission of Inquiry, is what has resulted in North Korea's lasting power as an international threat to peace and security.

This latest nuclear test only shows the irrefutable reality that approaching the North Korean regime by focusing on the issue of denuclearization will undoubtedly fail. Asking North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons is tantamount to demanding an unreasonable toddler to give up his beloved lovey or blanket. Military intervention is also clearly not an option. Most agree that it has been a "great achievement" to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula for the past six decades and it is unlikely and irrational to argue that this peace or stability should ever be put at risk.

Sanctions have been the most common, and currently for the US the sole, remedy when approaching North Korea. In fact, the current bills being proposed in Congress are all variations on the same theme: sanctions, sanctions and more sanctions. However sanctions have failed to have any meaningful impact due to the economic support of North Korea's long-time ally: China. Although China has responded to this most recent nuclear test with strongly worded condemnation, it appears unlikely that it would abandon its long-time support for North Korea.

All other possible approaches point to engagement; Engagement is the only viable option when it comes to approaching North Korea. Whether six-party, three-party or two-party talks, if engaging with North Korea is inevitable why not change the focus of the talks away from the typical demands for denuclearization and instead start with the crimes against humanity documented by the UN Commission of Inquiry? Why not utilize the threat of a potential referral to the International Criminal Court as a point of leverage? Why not focus the engagement on the international human rights issues which are bi-partisan and common-ground to all interested states and parties?

This is no longer the era of the Cold War. We expect absurd statements and reactions from North Korea. But Washington has a unique opportunity to lead the way from "strategic patience" to strategic engagement; Engagement which could include the internal empowerment of the North Korean people in addition to the external international pressure to bring proper accountability to the North Korean regime.

So yes, North Korea has done it again. But let's not fall into that same refrain. Let's move beyond sanctions and condemnations and come up with new modes of engagement. The people of North Korea are at stake and deserve our every attempt at finding a workable policy and solution.