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Engaging North Korea: time to rethink and retool

By Caitlin Byrne - posted Thursday, 11 April 2013

Recent weeks of escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula have made it clear that we do not really know or understand North Korea at all. To be sure, North Korea's behavior has been deliberately provocative and unhelpful. Yet the initial response of the international community and in particular the United States, has only served to inflame the situation further and firm the resolve of the North Korean leadership and people to maintain their difficult stance. The potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation on the Korean Peninsula is at the core of any current security threat.

North Korea specialists, scholars and policy-makers alike are intently watching the latest round of provocations to emerge from the nation. But much of the analysis comes back to speculation. Lurching from threat to counter-threat to escalated-threat, this recent wave of daily speculation has not necessarily shed new light on the North Korean puzzle. It has though usefully highlighted persistent gaps in the diplomatic frameworks through which we try to manage and respond to this confounding nation.

It is time to rethink how we engage with North Korea.


The strategy of isolation has largely underpinned the international community's response to North Korea over time, and most recently since its first nuclear test in 2006. Spearheaded by internationally agreed sanctions, the intent has been to limit the extent to which North Korea can participate in a global transactional world, particularly to progress its nuclear ambitions. US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice sums it up neatly: the role of sanctions is to 'bite and bite hard', to 'increase North Korea's isolation and raise the cost to North Korea's leaders of defying the international community'.

There is a place for international sanctions in regulating the behaviours of states, particularly when it comes to targeting and restricting the flow nuclear or other illicit materials or building global pressure on human rights issues. Both of these concerns apply to North Korea. Reaching international agreement on the nature and scope of sanctions is no easy task. So when it occurs in the United Nations Security Council such agreement provides both a symbolic and substantive demonstration of international solidarity. This has also been important in responding to North Korea.

But sanctions alone - usually designed and implemented in times of crisis - are insufficient, and should not take the place of effective long-term diplomacy. In the case of North Korea, as with other sanctions targets, it is the ordinary people, already enduring significant hardship, that are hardest hit by their ongoing impacts. Indeed, North Korea's most recent nuclear test and proposed re-commencement of operations at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor indicate that the impact of sanctions as the primary international response mechanism is questionable.

Long-term strategies of isolation are incompatible with effective diplomacy. Rather than excluding and punishing, diplomacy uses engagement and dialogue to work through differences and overcome alienation. By its very nature diplomacy is two-way; that is, it requires listening as well as talking. The absence of effective diplomacy towards North Korea is startling. As a result, lines of communication with North Korea are quite literally blocked and we remain more in the dark about North Korea and its leadership than ever before. That is, of course with the exception of basketball superstar, Dennis Rodman. Not to suggest Rodman's visit was effective diplomacy. His ill-informed position both before and after visiting North Korea has added little to our understanding and any opportunities it might have opened up to build on so-called basketball diplomacy have been missed. Nonetheless, it is striking and worrying that Rodman is our best contact for North Korea's perplexing new leader Kim Jong Un.

North Korea maintains formal diplomatic relations with some 164 states, including Australia. But only twenty-five of those have a permanent diplomatic mission based in Pyongyang. These include China, Russia, Mongolia, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom, to name a few. Without access to robust diplomatic networks in Pyongyang the ability of strategists and policy-makers to decipher the signals embedded in North Korea's behaviour is seriously inhibited. At the same time, the opportunity for miscalculation is inflated.

Australia's diplomatic approach to North Korea has in recent years been framed by the international sanctions regime and further bilateral sanctions enacted under the Autonomous Sanctions Act 2011. While the Australian Government operated a diplomatic mission in Pyongyang briefly in 1975, the conduct of diplomatic relations in more recent times has fallen to the Embassy in Seoul; a problematic arrangement given current tensions and restrictions between the two Koreas.


For Australia, a nation now seeking to constructively engage within the Asian Century, the DPRK is of vital importance. The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper delivered last December neatly side-stepped the difficult issues posed by the North Korean puzzle. But as the events of the past week demonstrate North Korea will not be ignored. It is time to rethink our own diplomatic engagement beyond sanctions and to more effectively utilize both traditional and more innovative measures.

Building people-to-people linkages through public diplomacy initiatives such as academic or vocational exchanges is an important starting point. The experience of established organisations such as Choson Exchange and East West Coalition already operating exchange programs in and out of North Korea show that programs addressing specific areas of skill development, including business management, policy development, environmental management, organic farming or animal husbandry add significant and practical value to the people of North Korea.

Two-way exchange initiatives are made somewhat difficult by Australia's bilateral sanctions regime. Of particular significance, the legislation specifically prevents North Koreans from entering Australia. However there may be some room for flexibility where humanitarian grounds exist. Two-way exchange opportunities might then be usefully promoted to provide North Koreans with an Australian experience, without compromising the overarching intent of the legislation. Such initiatives if managed effectively offer a framework for building understanding, confidence and trust at a people-to-people level, and can pave the way towards improved understanding, trust and political dialogue.

Consideration should also be given to establishing a permanent Australian diplomatic presence in Pyongyang. Given the political situation on the Korean Peninsula, conducting diplomatic relations with Pyongyang from Seoul is both cumbersome and impractical. Establishing a diplomatic mission in Pyongyang would provide a measure of reassurance to the increasing (though small) number of Australians engaged in humanitarian relief activities, tourism and ad hoc exchanges within North Korea. Importantly, it would also send an important signal that Australia is ready and prepared to constructively engage with North Korea.

To the outside world North Korea is notoriously confounding. Yet that is no reason to opt-out of effective diplomacy. Building understanding and creating an environment for dialogue takes time and significant effort. In the case of North Korea it also requires some creativity. Australia is well placed to rethink its diplomatic strategies, and to develop a more constructive and engaged approach to make sense of the North Korean puzzle. The time has come to rethink our diplomatic engagement with this confounding nation; and retool accordingly.

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About the Author

Caitlin Byrne is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Bond University where she teaches courses in East-West diplomacy, global statecraft and global institutions and conflict resolution. A former diplomat, Caitlin's research interests include Australian diplomacy and public diplomacy with a particular focus on China and Korea. Her articles have appeared in journals including the Hague Journal of Diplomacy, and Exchange Journal of Public Diplomacy. She is book review editor for the Australian Journal on International Affairs, and an elected council member of the Australian Institute for International Affairs (Qld branch).

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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