Looking for an introduction to the full panoply of engagement arguments? Global Asia, edited by our friends Chung-in Moon and David Plott, has put out a special issue on the topic. Pulled together by Mel Gurtov, it brings together an excellent group of analysts.
Gurtov’s introductory essay defines the phenomenon as a mutual effort to enhance security. That might offend some right off the bat: shouldn’t we be trying to keep regimes like North Korea and Iran off guard? But Gurtov is right; if you play this game, you have to make offers that will increase the security—and thus arguably the longevity—of your adversaries.
The volume is not starry-eyed; between them, Gurtov’s introduction and Miroslav Nincic’s contribution underline the political constraints pretty clearly. On the one hand, as Nincic argues, inducements will only lead to reversals of undesirable policies “if the interests of traditional elites have evolved in ways that make them welcome such inducements.” Troy Stangarone’s analysis of the internationalization of Kaesong makes the same point; Kaesong is unlikely to have a wider effect—or be further internationalized—until North Korea fundamentally reconsiders the role of the zone in its wider economic and political strategy.
On the “sending” state side—namely us—political patience is required. As Gurtov argues, “unilateral acts to engage an adversary must at some point be reciprocated. If only for domestic political reasons, engaging an unfriendly state has a time limit; the political opposition and public opinion may not tolerate unreciprocated generosity for very long, least of all when a dispute has cost lives or when a government has developed a well-earned reputation for repressing its citizens.”
To say that both the Nincic and Gurtov constraints operate in the North Korean case is an understatement. Nonetheless, the essays include both interesting comparative pieces—on earlier diplomacy with the Soviet Union and on Iran and Burma—as well as some more granular pieces on different types of engagement with North Korea. A recurring theme—even an internal debate in the volume—is how much work can expect engagement to do and of what type. Karin Lee provides a particularly succinct introduction to the role of food aid as a tool for engagement. Lee argues that it can serve as a short-term quid pro quo but should not be expected to fundamentally change the security environment (nor the humanitarian one; more fundamental policy changes are required for that). Rather, food aid should be judged on its humanitarian merits; as my colleague Marc Noland showed yesterday, the situation remains precarious.
Engagement is not just about governments; people-to-people exchanges can also be used, including in subversive ways. Andrei Lankov summarizes his long-standing arguments that information is a crucial solvent for authoritarian propaganda and thus ultimately a strategy for regime change. The puzzle is that if the target state recognizes this, why would it go along? Nonetheless, we agree with Lankov; our dictum is “get people in, get people out” to the extent we can. Stuart J. Thorson & Hyunjin Seo extend the argument by making the case for engagement via scientific exchanges, but with the much more general justification that such exchanges are welfare enhancing; the contribution to the myriad strategic dilemmas on the peninsula is much more distal.
The crucial question at the moment is whether there is political stomach in either the US or North Korea to make the moves that might break the current logjam. We aren’t seeing it, and that may be a failure of imagination. But as the subtly conflicting views of Lankov, Lee, and Thorson and Seo suggest, much hinges on more fundamental questions. Are we trying to get the regime to denuclearize, feed its population, or reform? Or are we ultimately trying to bring about more fundamental political change? It’s fine to say “all of the above,” but does such a strategy really hang together? The lesson of this collection is that there is engagement and there is engagement; the strategy is not of a piece and will hinge on a clear definition of objectives and political expectations.
By Mel Gurtov
Carrots, Sticks and Domestic Politics By Miroslav Nincic
Hubris Versus GRIT: Put Pride Aside and Help Korea Find Peace By Walter C. Clemens, Jr.
Zone of Engagement: Can North Korea’s Kaesong Complex Be Internationalized? By Troy Stangarone
From Adversaries to Partners: Academic Science Engagement with North Korea By Stuart J. Thorson & Hyunjin Seo
Dead-End Diplomacy: Washington’s Failed Sanctions on Iran By Trita Parsi
Going its Own Way: Regime Change, Myanmar-Style By Nicholas Farrelly