Valley Voices

Give North Korea the respect it is craving


This week North Korea fired off another missile over Sea of Japan. The U.S. policy on North Korea’s nuclear issue hasn’t changed much since the 1990s. That being: the U.S prefers negotiation to conflict. But it is on a condition that North Korea gives up her nuclear ambition first. Then, we will come to the table.

Asking for Chinese help is another. Tighten up all sanctions. Remind North Korea of our military prowess, which could annihilate them in no time. Involve as many stakeholders in negotiations, as necessary. So, North Korea will be held broadly accountable. Six party talks is a case.

We have played out this orthodoxy on North Korea for nearly 16 years. Yet, it did not change their behavior. It rather hardens their resolve to develop their nuclear capability. We ought to rethink our current orthodoxy.

What North Korea wants most is respect. The Geneva Agreed Framework of 1994, whereby Clinton administration was able to make North Korea its nuke weapons project for several years (on and off from 1994 to 2003).

This was possible after the former president, Jimmy Carter, visited North Korea in 1994 and talked Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founding president, into halting his nuclear development effort.

Another: It was 2009 when the two U.S. reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were held captive by North Korea. The former president, Bill Clinton, went to North Korea to rescue them from their captivity. North Korea takes the U.S. presidents, even if they are former ones, visiting to talk to them as paying respect to them. For that matter, even Dennis Rodman, makes a difference.

Kim Jong Un likes Rodman’s visit to his country and his showcasing his basketball skills.

If President Donald Trump really means it when he says that he will be happy to talk to Kim Jong Un over a hamburger and carries it out, he will reap results. Give North Korea the respect it is craving. It wouldn’t cost us anything.

If we are reluctant, there is another option: South Korea.

South Korea has now a progressive president, Moon Jae-in. Opening talks with North Korea was Moon’s important campaign pledge when he ran for president. Tell North Korea that talking to Moon is like talking to the U.S., and give Moon freedom to show his initiative. Back him up with the U.S. blessing. After all, the two Koreas know that their land, their lives and their future are at stake.

Moon may like to take what some North Korea policy experts talk about a freeze for a freeze approach. For example, in exchange for the U.S. and South Korea scaling down their joint military exercise, let’s say, from an annual to a biennial event, talk over what we think North Korea ought to concede. Or trade a relaxation of one type of sanction for another concession.

Another is economics. The North Korean economy is in shambles. Because they pour all the money they have into their nuclear weapons build-up, their people starve. They can’t feed even their troops.

Reopen the special economic zone idea the two Koreas had operated for 12 years from 2004 to 2016, called Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC). Rich South Korean businesses relocated their production facilities and employed North Korea’s cheap labor. Conservative Park Geun-hye’s administration closed it down in February 2016, in retaliation for Kim Jong Un’s missile test launched in January 2016.

Let Moon administration multiply KIC by a dozen or more all over the North. This encourages growth of capitalism in North Korea. An unofficial yet an official market economy flourishes in North Korea, where rank and file North Koreans trade smuggle Chinese and South Korean goods, an important lifeline that feeds the people.

Capitalism does wonders. It produces and rewards incentives. People become self-reliant. As individualism evolves, they demand accountability from the state.

This is happening in China. This bottom-up demand may either bring down the leadership or change it. With it, a small country like North Korea may realize that for her hanging on to nukes does not make much sense. It may get its nuclear cover from China, as South Korea and Japan do from the U.S. This a no-cost deal; yet, there is coverage.

Marn J. Cha is professor emeritus of political science at Fresno State. He is the author of “Koreans in Central California (1903-1957): A Study of Settlement and Transnational Politics, University Press of America, 2010” and founding president of Central California Korean Historical Society. He visited North Korea and gave lectures there. He can be reached at