Commentary

North Korea Calls for Engagement, Not Isolation

At his first news conference, Jay Lefkowitz, the newly appointed U.S. envoy to promote human rights in North Korea, refused to rule out linking food aid to improvements in Pyongyang’s treatment of its citizens.

His comment was merely the latest indication that the United States has opted to continue its policy of isolation and confrontation to get the North Korean regime to capitulate. The historical record, however, suggests that engagement would be a better option.

The United States has utilized two other models for dealing with repressive governments: forcible regime change and isolation. Both have largely failed.

Using military force to achieve regime change is the most drastic model. Examples of that strategy include the overthrow of the radical leftist government in Grenada in 1983, the ultimatum to the military junta in Haiti in 1994, and most notably, the ouster of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003.

With the exception of the Grenada invasion, the results of U.S.-imposed regime change have been murky at best. Haiti remains a cauldron of chaos and corruption, and is now under a second peacekeeping occupation more than a decade after the United States “liberated” the country.

The jury is still out regarding Iraq, but clearly the transition has not gone the way that the Bush administration predicted. Nearly 2,000 American troops have perished in the campaign to put down an extremely resilient insurgency, and the prospect of civil war or the emergence of an Islamist regime remains very real.

The second model is a systematic campaign of diplomatic and economic isolation. Washington has imposed a comprehensive embargo against Cuba since the early 1960s, and has maintained a similar policy toward Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Administrations treated Vietnam with frigid hostility until relations were normalized during the Clinton years. The United States has also rejected any normal relationship with the communist regime in North Korea since the founding of that Stalinist state in the late 1940s.

The strategy of isolation has produced an even more dismal record than regime change. Washington’s Cuba policy has been a conspicuous failure. Our attempt to isolate the island has not caused Fidel Castro’s regime to collapse, let alone moderate its behavior. Trying to isolate Iran and North Korea has not fared any better.

Sometimes, the United States has opted for the third model—a strategy of engagement with repressive regimes—in the hope that such interaction will have a moderating influence. That approach has, not surprisingly, been used most often toward governments that are friendly to—or at least not hostile to—Washington. For example, the United States has always maintained extensive ties with Saudi Arabia, despite that country’s abysmal human rights record.

There have been a few cases, however, in which U.S. leaders have moved to engage with a country that has had an adversarial relationship with the United States. The Clinton administration’s decision to normalize relations with Vietnam followed a period of more than 40 years in which the two countries were implacable adversaries.

However, the most prominent instance of engagement strategy has been U.S. policy toward China (PRC) since the early 1970s. Again, that new policy followed a period of more than two decades in which Washington had sought to isolate the communist state, had fought one war (in Korea), and nearly came to blows on several other occasions.

Washington’s decision to adopt an engagement strategy toward China has paid huge dividends. China is now one of America’s leading trading partners, and the United States and the PRC cooperate on a host of issues, including combating terrorism and trying to solve the North Korea nuclear crisis. Engagement has also facilitated beneficial changes in China itself. While the PRC regime remains repressive politically, economic freedom has blossomed and the Chinese people have latitude in their personal lives that would have been unimaginable in the 1950s or 1960s.

On balance, engagement has been a much more successful approach than either forcible regime change or isolation. A substantial number of authoritarian U.S. allies have become democratic, and one-time adversaries like Vietnam and China have made significant progress toward liberalization. Engagement was at least a catalyst for many of those changes.

That record suggests that instead of attempting to isolate and browbeat North Korea we should see if engagement is possible. There is little doubt that Pyongyang wants to have normal relations with the United States. We should oblige. Kim Jong-il’s regime might well portray the offer of such a carrot as a boost to its prestige. But engagement would likely be a poisoned carrot—one that would help create subtle pressures for reform within the North Korean system. It is certainly preferable to the nearly six-decade-old and utterly bankrupt strategy of isolation.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or coauthor of six books on international affairs, including The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave/Macmillan).