North Koreans Should Have Attended Davos

Admittedly, North Korean diplomats would have cut a curious figure in Davos, attending the just-ended World Economic Forum. Representatives of one of the few regimes which still professes to be communist might have had to close their eyes amidst the capitalist excess highlighting the conference.

Still, the North Koreans would have seen much new. And there was the potential of what the Wall Street Journal termed “awkward encounters,” which might have allowed some informal diplomatic discussions on the side.

Alas, while the DPRK was invited to attend the forum, WEF rescinded the offer after the North’s latest nuclear test.

North Korea may be the most isolated state on the planet. Much of that is by choice. Nevertheless, Washington and its allies have made isolation their tool of choice in dealing with the North.

Of course, frustration with Pyongyang is understandable. Yet the policy has utterly failed. The DPRK has enshrined a unique form of monarchical communism, created an extraordinarily brutal system of domestic repression, maintained a large conventional military poised within reach of Seoul, and developed a growing nuclear arsenal.

Kim Jong-un, who succeeded his father in December 2011, has not liberalized politically. Moreover, he has continued the North’s missile and nuclear research.

Yet the DPRK is loosening economic controls. While much more needs to be done, Pyongyang’s commitment to reform appears real.

Kim has promised higher living standards alongside nuclear weapons. The more the regime could be tempted to sample heretofore forbidden economic fruits, the better. Just taste the apple from the tree of capitalism, Jong-un.

Which is where the WEF could have come in. Late last year the WEF invited the North for the first time since 1998, “in view of positive signs coming out of the country.” After Pyongyang’s January 6 nuclear test, however, the invitation was revoked since “under these circumstances there would be no opportunity for international dialogue.”

Actually, after the latest nuclear test was precisely the time when international dialogue was most required. War would be a foolish response and sanctions have been applied without result. China is angry with its frenemy but unwilling to risk the regime’s collapse. So if not negotiation, then what?

The organization said it would welcome the North in the future if the latter “acts as a responsible and responsive member of the international community.” Yet the current challenge is convincing the DPRK to act that way.

As I point out in National Interest online: “the WEF could have included North Korea without giving it anything. North Korea’s attendance wouldn’t involve formal talks with U.S. officials. No money, food, or energy would have been provided to the North as reward for coming. Rather, the DPRK would have been present rather like the kid with his nose pressed up against the window looking inside a toy store.”

Secretary of State John Kerry recently reiterated that Washington would never accept the DPRK as a nuclear power. But after Pyongyang’s latest test, the North Korean Foreign Ministry announced: “The U.S. should be accustomed to the status of the DPRK as a nuclear weapons state whether it likes it or not.” The North responded to years of isolation by simply forging ahead.

North Korea remains a seemingly intractable problem. Unfortunately, Washington’s drive to strengthen sanctions in the aftermath of the latest nuclear test won’t change anything. It’s time for Western officials to try something different.

While Kim Jong-un continues to pursue his country’s nuclear and missile programs, he appears to be more serious than his predecessors about economic change. If so, that provides the West with a bit of leverage.

Inviting Pyongyang to Davos offered potential benefits at minimal cost. Show Pyongyang what could be. Maybe North Korean officials would want it bad enough to adjust their course.

Next year, include Kim and his cronies at the WEF. The more time they spend looking talking in Switzerland, the less time they will have for making and deploying weapons in North Korea.