writing on suffering and awakening

12-step diplomacy: just talk with North Korea

The North Korean government recently tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching almost anywhere in Asia, the Pacific Rim or even Alaska. This is frightening news, given the destructive power of such a device, the unpredictability of Kim Jong-un’s regime, and the complete lack of diplomatic relations between North Korea and most of the rest of the world. 

The response of the United States has been to threaten military action and further sanctions. This is consistent with how America has dealt with North Korea for decades. Unfortunately, such an approach has led us to our current predicament.

We should instead try something new: establishing real, sincere and sustained diplomatic relations with North Korea and working to help integrate them into the world community. 

We have held talks with the North Koreans in the past, including multi-state negotiations to try and get them to give up their nuclear program. Obviously, such talks have failed. But what we have not done is make any sustained effort to encourage North Korea to join the international order: through trade, a loosening of border controls and the free flow of people and ideas that is increasingly the norm worldwide. 

None of this will happen if the North Koreans themselves aren’t willing, but we can do our part to bring about a change in the status quo. The United States has never had formal diplomatic relations with North Korea: now is the time to start. If we don’t talk to each other, all we have are our fears about each other. That’s what has brought us to this point.

It is tempting to think of North Korea as evil; a menace to the world order that must be stopped at all costs. However, while the North Korean government is certainly capable of causing a great deal of harm, they are still themselves people—deeper and more complex than a villainous caricature. For a more useful perspective, consider the plight of the alcoholic or drug addict. 

An alcoholic or addict spends most of their time harming themselves by drinking or using drugs. They cut themselves off from the people around them, but often harm them too. They do it all because they are chasing the illusion of comfort and security that being drunk or high can provide. They often justify this behavior by holding on to their grievances against others and the world as a whole.

Likewise, Kim Jong-un and his government spend most of their time maintaining a stranglehold over their own people—self harm. Their predecessors isolated the country—creating a barrier between themselves and South Korea filled with landmines, and hurt their neighbors—invading the south during the Korean War. They have continued to pursue greater power—nuclear weapons—because they desperately want to feel secure and in control. They have grievances, some of them legitimate—after all, while North Korea has rejected the international community, the international community has also rejected North Korea.

But a funny thing can happen when an alcoholic or addict starts going to a 12-step program. If they really commit to it, they become part of a community. They start spending time around other people who care about them, listen to them and understand them. They start doing deep spiritual work that helps them feel more connected to themselves and those around them. When they do this, their interest in drinking and using drugs will often begin to fade, because they’re learning to feel safe and comfortable without them.

Why can’t helping North Korea connect to the rest of the world have a similar effect?

Kim Jong-un and his government aren’t developing ICBMs because they just want to watch the world burn. They’re doing it because they want to hold on to power and protect themselves in a world they view as entirely hostile to them. There’s a lot of truth to that perspective—the world is hostile to them. The fact that such hostility is justified doesn’t make it any less frightening, or potent a motivator. They think that we’re as bad as we think they are.

Making a committed effort to establish diplomatic relations could change that. While we can’t do it alone, the United States could certainly take the lead on such an outreach. Making it clear to the North Korean government that we want to talk—and more importantly, want to listen—could do a great deal to ratchet down tensions in the region. Building and sustaining a relationship over time could even convince them to back off of continued weapons development, or at least help ensure that those weapons are never used.

Such an approach worked during the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union maintained diplomatic relations throughout their decades long struggle; relations that at least once averted a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War finally ended in part because Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev committed to loosening the iron grip his government held over its people, and began opening the Soviet Union up to the rest of the world. Had he been facing American threats of invasion, it is unlikely he would have pursued such a policy.

We’ve already had small successes talking with the North Koreans themselves. In 2009, two US journalists were arrested by North Korean forces while filming a documentary on the Chinese-Korean border. Former president Bill Clinton personally intervened, traveling to Pyongyang to speak with then-leader Kim Jong-il directly. President Clinton’s efforts worked: he was able to secure the release of the journalists, who returned with him to the United States.

Establishing genuine, formal and sustained relations with North Korea would require our current leaders to say: we don’t like these people, we don’t like what they’ve done, but we’re willing to talk with them anyway. We understand that we need to respect each other, if for no other reason than we have the power to destroy each other. It would require us to swallow our disgust at the behavior of Kim Jong-un’s government and sit down with them, human to human. In other words, it would take real humility, and a willingness to let go of the past, however horrible, in the hopes of a more peaceful present. That’s not easy, pretty or for the faint of heart but it is possible. 

Taking that leap could help the Kim government feel that they do in fact have a place in the world today. If they feel they are a part of the international community, they will certainly be less likely to try and destroy it. They may even be more open to seeing the benefits of a liberal and open society, and to emulating their sister nation to the south, which has prospered as dramatically as they have suffered.

Like an alcoholic or an addict, North Korea can break out of its pattern of destruction with the help of a community. We can’t make them change, but we can extend a hand. Let’s do it.

Ian Cooper