In meetings last week with civil society representatives in South Korea there was little mistaking where they think responsibility for the current nuclear standoff with North Korea rests – and it’s not primarily with Kim Jong-il.

A visit to the Hwacheon district and a “World Peace Bell Park” and newly-constructed conference centre on the edge of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) north of Seoul did little to lessen pessimism about the short-term prospects for a positive breakthrough in the nuclear stand-off. At the same time, there was much in what civil society representatives were saying to build optimism about the long-term. A Korean peninsula verifiably free of nuclear weapons and a bomb-making infrastructure is not only possible, but would almost be inevitable, they seemed to be saying, if the international community would make diplomacy and engagement their central and uncompromising approach.

The basis for diplomacy, said the South Koreans, must be a much better understanding of how North Korean authorities perceive their own plight. Bereft of foreign exchange, in a perpetual energy crisis, buffeted by natural disasters, and under a constant security threat, North Korea reached first for nuclear energy and then, when it concluded that promises of help would not be kept, the regime made the “logical” step from nuclear energy to nuclear weapons.

The notion that Kim Jong-il’s regime is irrational[i] and thus unlikely to respond rationally or logically to external conditions had little currency in these discussions. Indeed, the opposite was more persuasively put – namely, that the international community was wanting in both logic and foresight in repeatedly advancing tactics that would generate predictable negative reactions in the North.

It’s a point confirmed or at least implied by Mohamed ElBaradei in his farewell speech to the UN General Assembly: “…[S]ixteen years after the IAEA reported the country to the Security Council for non-compliance with its non-proliferation obligations, it has moved from the likely possession of undeclared plutonium to acquiring nuclear weapons. The on-again, off-again nature of the dialogue between the DPRK and the international community has stymied the resolution of the issue….”[ii]

The Nuclear Threat Initiative, in an Issue Brief on North Korea, notes that Kim Jong-il consistently links “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” to a removal of the threat it sees from the US and to “peaceful co-existence.” The NTI concludes: “The North Korean nuclear issue is a complex and multi-dimensional problem that has deeper roots than meets the eye. In order to fundamentally resolve this issue, North Korea's threat perception must be properly addressed and the United States is in a unique position to do just that. As long as North Korea believes that nuclear weapons are the only means of guaranteeing its survival against the threat it believes to be facing from the United States, there is a very slim chance that it will relinquish its nuclear weapons capability. Therefore, a durable solution to the acute security dilemma on the Korean peninsula can only be achieved when the United States sincerely engages in talks with North Korea to work towards normalizing ties between the two countries and establishing a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula. In other words, efforts to permanently strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons capability – past, present, and future – must be pursued in tandem with normalization talks in order to ensure positive results.”[iii]

The view of South Korean civil society voices engaged in north-south issues is also reflected in other proposals from elements of the international “expert” community. Leon Sigal links the elimination of nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula to a formal US commitment “that it has no hostile intent toward Pyongyang” and to a commitment “to signing a peace treaty that ends the Korean War when North Korea is nuclear-free.”[iv] Similarly, Andrei Lankov, who sees no breakthrough in the foreseeable future, insists there is no option but long-term dialogue and negotiations: “As the experience of the Cold War has demonstrated, these exchanges lead to the spread of information, which in turn slowly undermines the power of the regime, whose legitimacy is largely based on false claims. In the long run, these exchanges will probably prove decisive, since they will contribute to the growth of the internal forces that alone can change the North Korean state (and, among other things, bring about de-nuclearization).”[v]

South Koreans at the meeting near the edge of the DMZ made a similar point in response to questions about the obvious fact that while the North Korean regime may very well be highly sensitive to its own security, it has no demonstrable regard for the human security of its people. True, they said, but the way to change that is through engagement and dialogue, not isolation and threats.

Gradually improving economic conditions, through the integration of the North Korean economy into the global economy (the opposite of sanctions), removal of the security threats that drive regime paranoia, and the gradual promotion of people-to-people exchanges with the South and the rest of the world will, together, have an inevitable liberalizing effect in the North, say the South Koreans in these discussions. And it is this gradual change that will also gradually alleviate the desperate economic and political/human rights conditions that the people of North Korea now face.

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[i] Jacques E.C. Hymans writes of the “problematic…assumption…that North Korea's actions are rational responses to external incentives.” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Discarding tired assumptions about North Korea,” 28 May 2009.

[ii] Mohamed ElBaradei, “Statement to the Sixty-Fourth Regular Session of the United Nations General Assembly,”

[iii] NTI Issue Brief: The Six-Party Talks and President Obama’s North Korea Policy.

[iv] Leon V. Sigal, “What Obama should offer North Korea,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 28 January 2009.

[v] Andrei Lankov, “Beating Kim at His Own Game,” 17 November 2009, The New York Times.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.