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By Michael O'Hanlon |
The death of Kim Jong-Il, all things considered, is good news. While the demise of any human being is not really something to celebrate, he had far too much blood on his hands to merit much mourning. His nuclear weapons activities, his stewardship over mass starvation in North Korea in the 1990s and then finally the cold-blooded murder of 50 South Koreans in two incidents last year stand out in my mind among his most despicable “accomplishments.”
To be sure, things can always get worse. North Korea could, with bad luck and bad decisions, collapse or attack South Korea. So vigilance is needed on the part of all parties, as North Korea’s leaders try to form a new government, presumably under Kim Jong-un. Working with South Korea and Japan, as well as China, we should send out messages of reassurance and underscore that, of course, we have no intention of trying to complicate or exploit the situation.
More broadly, even while keeping up his guard and remaining sober about the prospects for change, President Obama should reiterate his inaugural address language about how the United States remains ready to reach out our hand to any extremist regime that would unclench its own fist. Such language was unfortunately met with North Korea’s second nuclear test back in 2009, when originally articulated. But perhaps this time it could be different.
There is no reason to dismiss the possibility out of hand. Obama has managed, over three years, to show that he is not naive about the prospects for such rapprochement with rogue regimes, yet at the same time is open to new possibilities as with this year’s outreach to Burma. Perhaps the same thing will be possible with North Korea, eventually.
Back in 2003, George Washington University Professor Mike Mochizuki and I wrote a book called Crisis on the Korean Peninsula that laid out a broad agenda for the U.S.-North Korea relationship and the six-party talks. A few years later, now-Assistant Secretary of State for Asia Kurt Campbell and I reiterated the basic argument in a chapter in our book, Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security.
In both cases, without trying to raise false expectations, we sketched out what might be termed a “Vietnam model” for North Korea reform. It would go beyond denuclearization to include, among other things, economic restructuring within the DPRK. Should Pyongyang be interested, and take meaningful and verifiable steps towards broad reform, the outside world could gradually respond, first with a lifting of sanctions and increase of humanitarian aid, and gradually with greater economic development assistance over time.
It is worth laying out such a vision, rather than communicating only a simple tactical willingness to talk along with vague promises of a possibly improved future relationship, in coming days and weeks. Usually Washington is far too tactical and unimaginative in talking about its vision for the Korean peninsula and this is a good time to be more creative and bold. Nothing is likely to change fast, but a young North Korean leader may be impressionable. And not only Vietnam, but also China, have moved in this sort of reformist direction before from within communist systems. There may soon be hope for North Korea too.