North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has scheduled North Korea’s first communist party congress in decades in May. The U.S. should encourage reform by proposing talks on drafting a peace treaty and normalizing relations.
Dealing with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has taken on an air of futility in Washington. The Obama administration refuses to talk with North Korea unless the latter first “takes irreversible steps toward denuclearization.” Yet expecting Pyongyang to yield its most important security assets in return for conversation ensures continued failure.
The first party congress since 1980, when Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, ruled, portends significant policy changes. Kim Jong-un likely will formalize both consolidation of power and new economic initiatives.
The government has been pushing creation of a “knowledge economy.” Private enterprise is expanding. In this way, argued analyst Michael Bassett, Kim is “liberating” the DPRK.
A de facto property market has arisen in this once most tightly controlled society. Private financing has developed. North Korean and foreign banks are providing cash cards.
The number of official open-air private markets has more than doubled since 2010 to 406; another 1000 unofficial markets are thought to be operating. Eight of ten North Koreans have shopped at private markets.
Noted the Guardian, “Unlike most aspects of life in North Korea, one’s ability to shoot up through the company ranks is less contingent on background: even those with poor songbun, a caste system delineated by family background and political loyalty, can be a boss.”
As a result, a more prosperous, brightly dressed middle class has taken root. Jang Jin-sung, a psychological warfare officer who defected in 2004, wrote: “The key to change lies outside the sway of the regime—in the flourishing underground economy.”
Of course, economic reforms so far are modest, and have not yielded a fully private economy. Moreover, such changes can go only so far in transforming North Korean society.
As I wrote for Forbes: “China demonstrates that autocracy can coexist with free enterprise. In this regard the North has very far to go. But the PRC also shows rising economic liberty to offer the best hope yet for positive evolution over time.”
There are no serious alternatives. War would have devastating consequences.
Enhanced sanctions are a panacea oft-proposed in the U.S. However, there’s no guarantee that increased hardship would cause Pyongyang to capitulate. Moreover, despite Beijing’s evident displeasure with its troublesome neighbor, China remains unwilling to cut its economic lifeline to the North.
Nor would a North Korean implosion be pretty. Pyongyang could choose to strike out militarily. Collapse could send violence and refugees across the DPRK’s borders and loose nuclear materials even further. China might occupy the North and install a friendly regime.
The only other option is engagement, with a conscious attempt to moderate the threat environment facing both Koreas. But eliminating nuclear weapons cannot be the starting point. The possibility of bribing or coercing the North to abandon its nukes disappeared long ago.
Instead, Washington should begin where the North has suggested: negotiate a peace treaty. The best reason to talk may be the simplest: nothing else has worked.
Responding to North Korea’s initiative would offer two practical benefits irrespective of the outcome. First, the North tends to eschew provocative military actions when engaged in negotiations. Second, Beijing long has urged the U.S. to address Pyongyang’s security concerns. Taking the PRC’s advice might make the latter more likely to cooperate with Washington.
However, the most important reason to negotiate remains to encourage the DPRK to move further and faster along the reform path. Such a result might be a long-shot, but Kim Jong-un is dismantling the North Korean status quo.
Of course, discussions should be conducted without illusion. But refusing to engage ensures future failure.
North Korea’s upcoming party congress offers a possible opportunity to dampen hostilities. It’s time for the U.S. to attempt to finally end the Korean War.