How to deal with North Korea
February 18th, 2013
12:54 PM ET

How to deal with North Korea

By Global Public Square staff

North Korea's nuclear test drew the usual reprimands from world leaders. President Obama promised swift and credible action. We know what this is likely to mean – more sanctions and greater isolation for Pyongyang.

But what if the answer should really be the opposite? What if the best way to change North Korea is more commerce and communication with it rather than less?

If you look at examples of how we deal with other countries, sanctions rarely work. In Cuba, 54 years of sanctions have kept the Castros in power while its citizens have suffered. They remain isolated with the lowest rate of Internet penetration in the entire western hemisphere.

In Iran, unprecedented sanctions have been in place for years, but there is no clear sign that the real powers that be, the Mullahs, are in peril. In Syria, no amount of pressure has had any impact on Bashar al-Assad's brutality.

More from GPS: North Korea dance begins again

Now, if you ask Asian diplomats, they will point to Myanmar as embodying the opposite approach. Asian countries traded with Myanmar, invited it to diplomatic gatherings and, over time, persuaded the military junta to open itself up, both domestically and to the world.

There's a pattern in the last two decades of negotiations with North Korea. First comes a missile test, closely followed by a nuclear test, global sanctions, then some talk of rapprochement and, then, back to square one – more provocations.

All the while, the people of North Korea have suffered. In the 1990s, an estimated 2 million people died in a nationwide famine. North Koreans have almost no contact with the outside world. Less than 10 percent of them even have mobile phones, and those are not allowed to call outside the country. Per capita income is estimated to be somewhere around $1,000 a year, about 1/20 of that in neighboring South Korea. The best path to open up with North Korea might be trade deals, travel programs. We could start with student exchange programs.

About a decade ago, Syracuse University started research collaboration with North Korea’s Kim Chaek University of Technology. The partnership has led to the creation of North Korea's first digital library. Technology from that partnership enabled the New York Philharmonic to broadcast its recent concert in Pyongyang.

We might need more of these partnerships, not fewer. Google's founder, Eric Schmidt, recently visited North Korea, and we may need more such trips by more entrepreneurs like him.

In the very short run, they do give the regime some credibility, but in the long run, capitalism and commerce are the assets of modernity that always wear down dictatorships.

soundoff (140 Responses)
  1. Adam

    I hate these arguments that "sanctions don't work." Bashar al Assad's economy has plummeted and desperation continues to fuel the violent struggle to unseat him. Cuba's economic shambles has left it utterly irrelevant. High prices led to the popular demonstrations/uprising in 2009 against Iran's government that left Ahmadinejad looking anemic on the world stage. Tell me again how "sanctions don't work." They work!

    February 21, 2013 at 11:57 am | Reply
  2. Donn

    Just air-drop a few million smartphones and wait for the fun to happen...

    February 21, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Reply
    • Old Shoe

      Won't work, they have very little cell phone infrastructure. Heck, a nighttime satellite image shows a nation almost completely blacked out. Does that tell you anything??

      February 21, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Reply
  3. kennethilg

    I think we should give them all the nukes they want. Drop as many as Obama wants to get rid of and eliminate the problem. I feel that if/when they do perfect thier nuclear bomb programs they won't hesitate to use them on us!

    February 21, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  4. Jimh77

    Ask yourself, What would John F Kennedy do if he was in charge? I think I know what he would do.

    February 21, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Reply
  5. Drearily

    This whole "Microwave Ovens for Freedom" thing is a nice idea-and I feel for those suffering in this oppressed country-but how can it work when the supply chain we set up must first go through the North Korean military? By the time it reaches the common folk, there won't be much left to ease their pain.
    Citizen Kim: (opens dirty, shredded box) "Wow! Look! 1000 box snow globes! Wait, this not food..." (suddenly staggers back, holding chest, and mutters, "Ricebud..." (collapses and dies)

    It's hard to believe they are still bitter over losing the Korean war as their sole motivation for isolation and hatred of the US. After multiple rejections of aid, the leaders are acting more like irresponsible parents reminiscent of Saddam Hussein and the Castros. Smoke cigars by palace poolsides and occasionally (reluctantly) get up in front of the camera to badmouth the US with political rhetoric to assure all their slaves-surrounding them in a human shield-they're better off worshiping them. They then push a red button, shake the entire country with a crappily-made nuclear weapon with mickey-mouse ears on it, and rock them all into a blissful sleep.
    Jong-Un: "Ahhh. That should hold 'em for a few more months."

    February 21, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Reply
  6. Old Shoe

    North Korea's dictator will use nukes, sooner or later, I have no doubt. This looney has an itchy trigger finger and he cares not about his country or countrymen, otherwise he would not be starving his own people. His mentality is a result of decades of tutoring in hatred by his father and grand father and his hatred of the US will trump rational reasoning. The really scary part is that this looney just might be picking this fight on purpose to try and force the US and/or allies into a preemptive strike. If there is a preemptive strike, anything less than a clean decapitation of the chain of command will be like throwing dynamite into a fire. Trying to bring North Korea to the table in the past with different form of aid has failed. North Korea used those resources to get where they are today. Park an Ohio class boomer off their coast.

    February 21, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  7. deviin

    What ever happened to good ole fashion divide and conquer?

    February 21, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  8. f. Daniel Gray

    I am fascinated. 105 posts: 95% of which, gave variations of the same or similar themes. Not one providing some kind of acquaintance with information, albeit scarce, about what conditions actually exist in the DPRK. I have not been there. But, at least I have checked the CIA fact book, and watched the videos posted on You Tube by persons who have. First: the government there is not hesitant to reveal that life there is difficult. I doubt food is plentiful. I have seen videos of populations which are nearly starving. Mostly on the African continent, which has the ten ( probably 20) most poor nations in the world. Not to speak of Haiti, a country we "help." The most easily visible sign is, hordes of people hanging around, and aimless. Somewhat like what I see here in Los Angeles. Yet, no such visages have been shown to exist in the DPRK. And, since they "supposedly hate us," so much, why would they care if we know about such conditions? Most of the poor and desperate people i have come across, respond to my presence as if I was not there. i assume, it's because they believe I don't care about them. Actually, I am ashamed, since i live in the richest country in the world.

    I cannot imagine what arrogance and unawareness regarding history, motivates people to recommend, "just bomb them." The British were not cowed by the german bombing. Nor the Germans, despite the 24 hour firebombing of Essen, Cologne, Dresden, etc. Not to speak of our bombing of Viet Nam, Korea, Iraq, and now, Afghanistan.

    WE have been waiting and predicting the imminent implosion of the DPRK government for over 60 years. Like it or not, it is supported by the majority of the population, which didn't fall into our arms, thankful of our arrival, when WE came to their country to "free" them. They, and their Chinese cohorts, came on, eager to face us, and hope for our demise. Yet, the overwhelming majority of posts claim, that the citizenry lacks the courage to confront their own government. I would offer, the "brainwashing," the many posts claim exists there, is actually in existence, here 'at home," no?

    i have no idea how the situation can/will be resolved, resulting in a single Korea. There was supposed to be a vote in 1948. The US refused to recognize the representatives sent from the north, Did WE expect they would be spouting praise for Western democracy, having been tutored by the Soviet Union? WE then told those in the South to form a government. The North soon followed, and the contest was on. They have already told us many times that they will not do IT "our way." And, have DEMONSTRATED, they are mentally prepared to resist. WE ought to recall that, the German Wehrmacht was the most efficient and modern military organization when it advanced into the SOVIET UNION with its best. 24 million lives later, the Soviets were chasing them back to Berlin.
    it takes more than simplistic notions to "defeat" the human organism when it is determined. Get It?

    February 21, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Reply
    • NorCalVet

      I highly recommend reading Escape from Camp 14. It is the life story of Shin Dong-hyuk who escaped from the DPRK when he was 23. When a population knows nothing about the outside world to the point of being encouraged to turn their parents and brothers/sisters in for having thoughts independent of "The Great Leader" it redefines Stockholm Syndrome.

      As a retired veteran who was assigned to the ROK, I can tell you I can understand the whole bomb them thing, although I disagree with it. I think a solution must be an internal DPRK one that can be facilitated from the outside. The Chinese aren't as supporting as they once were as they (DPRK) are costing them politically on a global level and I think much more adapt to having them follow their model of engagement as opposed to isolation.

      Just my thoughts....

      February 21, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Reply
  9. 6797777

    Sanctions or not North Korea does not want to deal with the United States. They understand that dealing with the US will bring an end to their revolution. Libya stands as a good example to what happens when you lay down your nukes and cooperate with the US. North Korea has nothing and as the saying goes they have nothing to lose. I can only imagine what would happen if all the war rhetoric would simply stop . What would happen if we gave them food in the next famine and wanted nothing in return. Stop having war games played out in their waters . China is a good example to the possibilities to what can happen in a few decades.

    February 22, 2013 at 1:36 am | Reply
  10. f. Daniel Gray

    Well NorCalVet, I wrote my reply. I don't post profanity or demeaning statements. Nonetheless, it was not posted. Your loss.

    February 22, 2013 at 3:40 am | Reply
  11. pnm9pnm

    kim is well on hes way he looks 4 real vicktoreys not fake i no what he can do 1 thing he dont wont the southj he has better site then that look in to hes i,s,.pnm,.

    February 22, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Reply
  12. pnm9pnm

    its charely that can take u out mow,.pnm,. with kim n more,.pnm,.

    February 22, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Reply
  13. Common sense

    Some of these blogs had to been written by N Korea plants, because no one in their right mind can seriously believe that we can shower them with gifts and they will love us forever. Who ever thinks that way needs a shrink...

    February 22, 2013 at 11:10 pm | Reply
  14. johnny

    Perestroika and Glasnost were badly timed. Supermarket shelves were empty, jobs were non existent. It was total chaos immediately after the historic breakup. All the former Soviet states were in social and political turmoil.

    So, China is taking its time to 'free' its citizens from an iron hand rule only when infrastructures and national economies are fully established to benefit everyone , China would remain authoritarian. They cannot afford the riots and protest marches which would destroy its aim to become the most powerful nation in the world.

    China have seen the consequences of a rushed Perestroika and Glasnost and what was like to be colonised by the western barbarians. They have also seen closeup America's humiliating Vietnam war debacle, and Wall Streets greed. It will take alot for them to have complete trust in America démocracy.

    February 23, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Reply
    • Learn the history of NK

      China will have to literally fight to rid itself of its Communist rulers. Inspite of the name, Soviet and Chinese style communism is all about a very few living well supported by the majority...People dont like giving up things and these people are adicted to the power.

      UNRESTRICTED Capitalism is very bad (we seem to be moving in that direction- all our regulations were in place for a very good reason) – But a regulated system, capitalism and socialism (socialism to look out for the elderly and disabled and give the poor a helping hand as they need it) can be just what we need worldwide.

      February 24, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  15. Phillipone

    I say all the missile test are just for show....I don't think they are going to actually do anything because that would mean their annihilation....The only real ally they have is China and they wouldn't back a pre-emptive strike on SK..... So I say if they want to be so isolated start ignoring them.....stop making a big deal out of anything they do if nobody has been hurt or no international laws broken.....

    February 24, 2013 at 7:13 am | Reply
  16. J. Choi

    You should remember South Korea’s “sunshine” policy (’98 to 2007) which aimed to engage the North proved a flat-out failure as it secretly kept working on nuclear program. Unlike Aesop’s fable, sunshine did not, and will never do the trick on the North because it is totally different animal from other dictatorships, with its iron-clad ideology “Juche”, stifling control on people’s lives, dynastic inheritance, and tight isolation. The North even sustained a devastating famine that took 2 million death tolls in the 90s, while refusing international assistance. (yet the regime still goes on) To me, nothing can be more apparent than juvenile leader Kim’s conviction of using nuke as the ultimate chip for its survival and an era of phony prosperity. Your suggestion – trade, travel, and handing out capitalism – will only prolong North Korean people’s miseries, while allowing more time for this rogue regime to advance nuke skills.

    February 26, 2013 at 1:44 am | Reply
  17. Herne

    I think we've tried engagement and aid. If they're just going to continue behaving like this we should engage China on the issue more forcefully. A united Korea would be better for everyone, including China. All that wealth surrounding them and they're still stuck in the 50s, it's a horrible thing. Engagement is fine, but it only ever happens on their manipulative terms.

    March 4, 2013 at 6:28 am | Reply
  18. Sherlyn Boyette

    The microwave oven with a lot of trials from the beginning came up with one that outstands beyond expectations. The creation of the microwave propped up without intent. Incidental in its start, it had soared its way to global popularity because of a series of iterative regressions, discarding previous trials in production stages; bridging towards the latest usage-input, durability, and design."*,"

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    July 9, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  19. trial free

    Some truly good blog posts on this website, thanks for contribution. "We are always in search of the redeeming formula, the crystallizing thought." by Etty Hillesum.

    August 20, 2013 at 10:35 am | Reply
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