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The Peninsula

Humanitarian Engagement with North Korea Could Be Important to the Success of a Trump-Kim Summit

Published May 4, 2018
Author: Robert King
Category: North Korea

By Robert R. King

The pending summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un is reportedly still on track, although at this time the venue and date are still unresolved.  Timing and place are important, but certainly less important than the substance of the meeting.  Thus far, little has come out about an American strategy for the discussions other than denuclearization is the overwhelming American concern.  Newly-installed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had discussed U.S. expectations with regard to “complete, verifiable, irreversible” denuclearization.  There are indications, however, that Kim is looking to phase in denuclearization over time as the U.S. makes significant concessions.

Newly installed National Security Advisor John Bolton continues to cite the example of Libya’s denuclearization as the model for North Korea.  That rhetoric continues despite clear indications that the North has rejected the Libya scenario.  The North is intent on a balanced step-for-step approach, while American officials are calling for the North to abandon its nuclear program with no clear indication thus far of what the United States might provide in return.

Americans are talking about a peace treaty—a commitment—to bring a formal and final conclusion to the Korean War, as well suggesting other American “commitments” that would reward the North for denuclearization.  But at the same time these issues are being considered, President Trump appears to be moving to withdraw from the agreement reached between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany to constrain Iranian nuclear activities.  The Trump administration has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, and reneged on a number of trade agreements.  The record of the administration in keeping previous American commitments is certainly not likely to give Kim Jong-un great confidence in what President Trump might offer.

Reportedly, the North is considering some kind of phased denuclearization that can be balanced with step-by-step American commitments.  The North would like to make a verbal commitment on denuclearization, followed by the immediate lifting of UN economic sanctions by the United States and other countries.  But if sanctions are lifted before denuclearization is irreversible, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to re-impose sanctions.  It took a decade of increasingly provocative actions by the North involving nuclear and missile testing before the current relatively tough economic sanctions could be imposed through consensus by the United Nations Security Council.  To lift sanctions before denuclearization is irrevocable could result an impossible task of trying to put the “genie back in the bottle”—to reestablish the coalition of China, Russia, the United States and the European Union at the UN Security Council to re-impose sanctions if the North fails to fulfill its commitments on denuclearization.

At the same time, if the U.S. expects denuclearization by the North, there must be meaningful concessions to the North, but they must be such that they could be withdrawn if there is backsliding.  It is critical to begin a process to establish trust with the North in order to increase Kim Jong-un’s confidence that he is making the right choices.  In short, the U.S. needs to offer a package to the North that will be accepted as important and meaningful by Kim Jong-un, but one that has the assurance of fulfillment if the North meets its commitments.

The bottom line is that the U.S. needs to offer something to the North in the short term—more than the possibility of lifting sanctions sometime in the indeterminate future.  There is every expectation that the three American citizens currently detained in North Korea will be released by Pyongyang.  This is something the North has offered in the past to get the United States to the table on various issues.  In the past, such a gesture has become a standard feature of high level visits involving senior North Korean and senior American officials.  Again, however, from the North Korean point of view, they are offering something we want immediately—the American citizens—but thus far there is no indication that the U.S. is offering much immediately that would be beneficial for the North.

There are things that the United States can to do to encourage progress on the nuclear issue as well as create good to overcome strained relations of the past.  Humanitarian engagement with North Korea offers real possibilities that could be helpful in this process.

Until a year ago, a number of American humanitarian organizations were involved in North Korea.  Some were involved in providing medicines for treatment of multi-drug resistant TB, providing medical equipment, bringing North Korean physicians and researchers to the United States for training in the latest medical methods.  Other organizations have provided expertise in farming methods and cattle breeding, advising on agricultural organization and marketing, and in providing seed, fertilizer, and livestock embryos.  The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) was providing world standard education and training in medical professions, business, and other university disciplines.  These efforts have lagged because of the Trump administrations travel ban to North Korea.

Tight restrictions on travel to the North as well as increasing difficulties raising private funds for these activities due to negative news about DPRK nuclear and missile programs have resulted in severe curtailing of humanitarian engagement.  One area where the United States can make a positive gesture as part of a reciprocal process to encourage steps toward denuclearization would be to lift travel restrictions and provide encouragement for American Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to re-engage on a much larger scale with the North.  (There is probably still reason to maintain a travel ban for tourism to the North.)  Such steps would not only provide modest help that would reach the North Korean people, it would also improve the image of the United States and the American people.  As we make progress on denuclearization, the U.S. can change travel restrictions, and it should consider providing some U.S. funding for these activities.

We also need to encourage reciprocity by allowing North Koreans to travel to the United States.  There is no question that the North will only allow individuals who are trusted travel abroad, and the government will make sure that security monitors accompany any travelers to the United States.  On the other hand, those individuals who are permitted to travel here (including the security officers) will take back impressions of life in a free society, which is quite contrary to the official treatment of Americans and their government.  Furthermore, permitting travel to the U.S. will be a public demonstration of American interest in making progress with the North.

Cultural exchanges can be helpful in this regard as well.  The New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed in Pyongyang in February 2008, at a time when relations were better.  That had an important and positive impact.  Efforts to arrange a repeat visit by the North Korean State Philharmonic Orchestra have been unsuccessful.  A reversal of the U.S. travel policy could be a very positive and visible gesture.  A concert by a musical group from the North performing in South Korea in February of this year in connection with the PyeongCheon Winter Olympics was given considerable attention in both North and South.  Encouraging cultural exchanges between the U.S. and the DPRK would give greater reassurance to Pyongyang that we are serious about improving our relationship.

We also need to encourage the exchange of journalists.  American journalists now have some ability to visit North Korea under tightly controlled conditions, but it has helped to improve access to information about conditions in the North.  We need to encourage visits by North Korean journalists to the United States.  Certainly only trusted journalists who carefully hew to the party line will be permitted to visit America and they will be accompanied by the ever-present security “minders.”  Nonetheless, it is a gesture that will help build confidence that the U.S. is serious about engaging with the North in reducing the nuclear threat.

Although these journalists will follow official directives in their news coverage, they will become more fully aware of what conditions are like in the United States.  Over the long run, these exchanges of information could be extremely beneficial.  The United States has programs to fund visits to the United States by journalists from many other countries, and these programs have an acknowledged value.  We need to expand these programs to include North Korean journalists.

Another program that should be revived is the effort to work with the North for the recovery of the remains of United States military personnel who were killed during the Korean War whose remains have not been repatriated to the United States.  Such an effort was briefly underway in the past, but was discontinued over six year ago.  This program should be revived to expand contacts between North Korean and American military personnel.

There are a number of other possibilities for humanitarian and information engagement, and we need to seek other ways to reassure the North of our positive intentions as denuclearization succeeds.  The bottom line, however, is that any successful effort to bring about denuclearization of the North will not be the result of a single Trump-Kim meeting.  Any successful effort will be a long-term process.  A cordial handshake before a multitude of journalists and cameras, a round of dinner toasts, and a couple of high-minded speeches will not be enough to unravel seven decades of suspicion, hostility, and distrust.  If this summit does take place—and there are still many potential pitfalls ahead—and if this meeting is to have a positive outcome, we must approach this as a long term project.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own. 

Photo from USAID U.S. Agency for International Development’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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