By Daniel Jasper
As the U.S. prepares for general elections in November and with national conventions set for the remainder of July, the focus in DC is on speculation about what the next Administration could look like and how each candidates’ platform would manifest in office. This tendency to look ahead along with the short (but packed) Congressional calendar and the legacy considerations of those in their last terms in office have created an environment of paralysis in Washington. In no other area of foreign policy is this more apparent than in Washington’s dealing with North Korea and rising tensions on the Peninsula.
While numerous sanction and regulatory actions have been taken recently against North Korea, these actions have amounted to a ‘policy auto-pilot’ with little attention or response to a rapidly changing political environment. Lacking constructive avenues for engagement and consistent channels of communication, US-North Korea relations have continued to decline. Yet, a menu of policy options are available that could de-escalate tensions, spur diplomatic cooperation, and lay the groundwork for the next Administration to make meaningful progress towards peace on the Korean Peninsula.
On July 6, the United States imposed sanctions on Kim Jong Un and 10 other North Korean officials for their alleged complicity in human rights abuses. These measures, along with the U.S.’ designation of North Korea as a primary money laundering concern in early June, were legislative aftershocks of the sanctions imposed last January following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. Those sanctions contained several congressionally mandated tasks for the Administration, such as reporting on the human rights situation in North Korea and on money laundering operations as well as determining who, if anyone, is responsible and imposing more sanctions accordingly.
These measures set into motion a series of regulatory actions on North Korea that did not coincide with any particular further provocations on the part of North Korea. In fact, just hours before the U.S. Treasury Department announced it would place sanctions on Kim Jong Un, North Korea issued a statement indicating a willingness to talk and even hinting at the possibility of denuclearization. This series of regulatory actions has produced a state of complacency in Washington, creating the feeling that policy options are exhausted and North Korea is ‘being dealt with.’ As a result, diplomatic signaling has been replaced by hardline posturing, as the situation continues to deteriorate.
While Obama’s legacy has yet to be finalized, his foreign policy accomplishments already include impressive diplomatic feats that include restoring relations with Myanmar, Iran, and Cuba. While the situation vis a vis each country was dictated by individual circumstances and historical idiosyncrasies, the process of improving relations in each case included similar initial policies that helped shape an environment conducive to diplomacy. The U.S.- DPRK relationship remains an exceedingly urgent issue for the Administration, yet, the basic foreign policy tools employed with Myanmar, Iran, and Cuba have either never been implemented or have ceased due to a U.S. policy of “strategic patience”, which demands voluntary North Korean denuclearization as a precondition for diplomacy and constructive engagement.
One such policy the US has implemented repeatedly during times of diplomatic deadlock is people-to-people exchanges. International exchange programs have been an elementary, yet critically powerful foreign policy tool for almost a century – utilized to help move along normalization with the U.S.S.R., China, Myanmar, Iran, Cuba, and other nations. North Korea is one of the only, if not the only, remaining countries with which the U.S. does not conduct government-sponsored exchange programs. What is not always understood in regard to exchanges is that the programs contribute much more than citizen enrichment. The impact of exchange programs can be seen in shifts in understanding among rising officials who translate these experiences into real policies. For example, F.W. de Klerk attributed a fundamental change in his thinking regarding race relations and apartheid in South Africa to his participation in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (an exchange program for mid-level officials). Further, these programs activate bureaucratic and diplomatic processes that establish low-level modes of cooperation which, through time, develop official capacity to work across cultural and governmental divides.
On July 23, the Korea Peace Network, an alliance of civil society groups and individuals working for peace building, human security, and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula, held an all-day conference in conjuncture with Partnerships for International Strategies in Asia at George Washington University highlighting four policies the U.S. can implement now to improve relations with North Korea. The event was surely like no other held in Washington, DC in recent days, as it put forth concrete proposals for the U.S. to de-escalate tensions through principled and safe means of engagement.
The proposals made during the conference included restarting operations to retrieve the remains of U.S. veterans left in North Korea after the Korean War, facilitating family reunifications between Korean-Americans and North Koreans, ending the Korean exception to the U.S.’ landmine policy, and initiating people-to-people exchanges. The most significant aspect of these policies is that none of them require a reversal of the U.S.’ current policy measures such as sanctions or undermine high-level stances on denuclearization.
During the conference, the American Friends Service Committee released a full report on the feasibility of U.S. government sponsored people-to-people exchanges, which included insights from ordinary North Korean citizens, U.S. exchange professionals, and an assessment of the impact and implications of initiating such exchanges. The report found that nothing except political will stood in the way of implementing a potentially dynamic-changing exchange program and, in fact, Congress has an opportunity with existing legislation such as the North Korea Human Rights Act to establish the program this year.
Other existing pieces of legislation regarding reunifications for Korean-American and North Korean families (H.Con.Res 40 and S. 2657) as well as the retrieval of U.S. veteran remains from North Korea (H.Res 799) offer other promising areas in which pressing humanitarian issues can be resolved while, at the same time, reducing overall tensions. Both issues have received significant bipartisan support in Congress, but appear to be coupled with the nuclear issue for the Administration. In fact, retrieval operations for U.S. veteran remains received the most comprehensive exemption from Congress in the sanctions legislation passed in February – meaning that operations could restart at any moment without fear of violating sanctions. The inaction on the part of the Administration on these humanitarian issues ignores the rights of families and insults the dignity of U.S. veterans who have been left behind for over six decades. Moreover, inaction on these issues overlooks the potential for basic, principled foreign policy tools to help stabilize the situation on the Peninsula.
The Administration’s ‘Korea exception’ to its landmine policy is, perhaps, the most indicative of how North Korea is treated as a matter of foreign policy – an exception. The Obama Administration has indicated its desire to sign onto the Mine Ban Treaty, and the U.S. has led demining efforts around the world. However, Korea is the sole reason why the U.S. has not signed on to one of the world’s most successful international conventions. Despite well-known testimony that landmines are detrimental to military strategies, the U.S. refuses to sign the Mine Ban Treaty on the basis that somehow, Korea is an exception to those testimonials and that the situation on the Peninsula is a valid reason for the U.S. to skirt international obligations.
As the U.S. prepares for a critical political transition, it is easy to get swept up in domestic issues, safeguarding legacies, and speculating about what the future holds. However, as we look ahead, we can miss what’s happening now. The situation on the Korean Peninsula continues to deteriorate, and the dismissal of North Korean statements and actions could result in missed opportunities and a worse negotiating position for the next Administration. Policies are available, legislation is in play, and tensions are reaching a breaking point – so, where is the action? Washington cannot simply rely upon ‘auto-pilot policies’ to deal with a dynamic situation, and if Obama seeks to leave a positive foreign policy legacy, he shouldn’t ignore North Korea for the next five months, in hopes the situation on the Korean peninsula will resolve itself. On July 11, North Korea announced that it is closing its U.N. office to communication with the U.S. – the only direct diplomatic channel between the two countries. With so many doors closing, someone has to open a window. Washington has the tools; it’s time to get to work.
By Daniel Jasper