Fresh US approach to DPRK urged, eschewing stereotypes
If this region destabilizes, our economies go bad, very, very quickly.” Mike Mullen, former chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
The misperception and failed US policy regarding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has sparked fresh debate in recent days about a new and more realistic approach.
On Monday, The Associated Press published a story by its Pyongyang Bureau Chief Eric Talmadge questioning all the prevailing stereotypes about the DPRK among Americans and probably much of the Western world.
Talmadge, who has been regarded as the only Western journalist working regularly in the DPRK, argued against the conventional US thinking that the country is an economic basket case that incomprehensively pours resources into nuclear weapons and cares only about enriching a tiny circle of elites when it can’t even feed its own people.
“It’s an ‘impossible state’, as one former US diplomat put it, bound to collapse under the weight of its own failed policies, if just given a push,” he wrote in summarizing the widespread misconception in the US.
Talmadge said that there is little evidence that DPRK leader Kim Jong-un is “crazy, erractic, incompetent” as many Americans have thought, noting that Kim was able to be solidly in power even in his late 20s.
He also argued that Kim’s policy has been consistent – to develop the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal while improving its standard of living.
While many argue that the DPRK’s going nuclear is irrational, Talmadge said that while the DPRK’s pursuit of a viable nuclear arsenal is a costly endeavor, the military calculus is different as a viable nuclear deterrent at the bargaining table with the United States.
He believed that while sanctions have hurt the DPRK, they have not been crippling, adding that there is no evidence that the DPRK government cannot survive, as many Americans believe.
Talmadge’s article mirrors one in January this year by Fan Jieshe, senior fellow of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and also deputy director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Studies.
In the article, published shortly after the DPRK conducted its fourth nuclear test, Fan criticized US President Barack Obama’s policy on the country — “strategic patience” — as based on a wide range of misconception, much like the list in Talmadge’s story.
Fan also criticized the US thinking that the Six-Party Talks cannot work and that the DPRK’s nuclear issue is China’s problem and China’s fault, as reflected in the rhetoric by US Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently after the DPRK conducted its fifth nuclear test.
Four of the tests were conducted under the two terms of the Obama administration.
“Considering he is approaching the end of his second term, it might be a bit late for President Obama to change American policy in substantial terms. But better late than never — it is critically important to learn from past failures,” Fan wrote.
On Sept 16, the Council on Foreign Relations published its taskforce report titled A Sharper Choice on North Korea: Engaging China for a Stable Northeast Asia.
Chaired by Mike Mullen, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sam Nunn, former US senator, the report finds that the US policy of “strategic patience” with DPRK will neither halt that country’s recurring and dangerous cycle of provocation nor ensure the stability of northeast Asia in the future.
To the contrary, the report warns, “If allowed to continue, current trends will predictably, progressively and gravely threaten US national security interests and those of its allies.”
Describing the US-China relationship as the most important in the 21st century, Mullen said on Sept 16 that the two largest economies have to work together.
“If this region destabilizes, our economies go bad, very, very quickly. It’s got four of the five largest economies in the world in this region. That’s compelling motivation to try to get this right,” he said.