A United Nations panel recently spent a year and lots of money from contributing nations, including the United States, to arrive at an obvious conclusion already known to the world: North Korea severely abuses human rights. The question remains, "What can be done about it?" The answer remains, "Not much."
Yet public criticism of its human rights record by international bodies, such as the United Nations, and individual states, such as the United States, usually causes North Korea to deny it, then fume, and then continue or escalate the abusive practices just to spite the international community.
And Kim Jong-un, the young ruler of North Korea, may be even more ruthless and erratic than his despotic father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, Kim Il-sung. Yet the almost 65-year U.S.-led effort to isolate this regime has failed – as also has the 55-year attempt to do the same with the Castro brothers in Cuba. In both cases, isn’t it time to try alternatives to these "isolationist" policies?
The disclosures by Edward Snowden showed that the U.S. intelligence community has almost no information on the secretive North Korean regime. Yet it is commonly believed that North Korea has enriched enough nuclear fuel to create several rudimentary atomic bombs – the hardest step in making such devices. Thus, for some time now, the "isolationist" policy of the international community toward the regime is out of date. It is one thing to attempt to strangle economically a country that may be trying to get a nuclear weapon, such as Iran, to make it desist from the attempt and another to try to do so with the likely already nuclear North Korea. An argument can be made for continuing "instrumental" bans on exports of equipment and technology that could be used by the North Koreans to make more nuclear bombs, but punitive general sanctions designed to strangle the economy of a nuclear weapons state may be counterproductive. The decrepit communist economy of North Korea has little that the world wants to buy; trying to snuff out any limited exports with general economic sanctions merely makes it more likely that the North Koreans will try to peddle its nuclear bomb technology around the world to earn scarce foreign currency.
Despite North Korea’s poor human rights record and because attempts to strangle the country’s economy have just made it more unruly over time, perhaps the U.S.-led international community should follow mother’s old saying that, "you get more with sugar than vinegar." Vinegar has left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and has predictably made matters worse.
Surprisingly, leading the way to a new policy toward North Korea is an American private citizen: basketball hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman. Much berated by ruthless news reporters, such as George Stephanopoulos and Chris Cuomo, who think they had an easy mark, Rodman instinctively knows what they don’t: people need to talk to dictators, even ruthless human rights abusers like Kim Jong-un. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger actually made nice with Mao Zedong, who probably killed more people than any other despot in world history and who makes Kim Jong-un and his family look like pikers. But you say, they were from the US government and Rodman is a private citizen. True, but international companies, such as Coca Cola and Exxon, regularly make money in and for countries with poor human rights records. Also, Rodman’s freedom to travel to a country that his government hates should let the citizens of North Korea know that people have it better elsewhere.
In any case, the US government has severely botched policy toward North Korea over a 65-year period, and Rodman can do no worse. In fact, his visits offer new intelligence that is very hard to get on the Hermit Kingdom and also offer a private back channel, which could be used by the US government during a crisis or to change US policy for the better.
In addition, international policy has not always been consistent; sometimes after misbehaving, North Korea has been rewarded with more humanitarian aid. This has got to stop, because it merely encourages further North Korean misbehavior. Instead, the United States and the international community should offer to gradually drop general, punitive economic sanctions if South Korea stops aggressive provocations against South Korea.
As for the North Korean nuclear threat, it has been overstated. Despite the fact that North Korea may have made a few crude "Wile E. Coyote" nuclear weapons, it still doesn’t have a reliable long-range missile to deliver them as far as the continental United States. Even if the North Koreans did eventually test and deploy such missiles, they would likely be deterred from attacking the United States with them by the world’s most capable nuclear arsenal consisting of thousands of warheads. The autocratic and self-absorbed Kim Jong-un’s primary goal is to stay in power; that would be impossible in an incinerated North Korea. Thus, a more realistic assessment of the North Korean nuclear threat should allow a relaxing of tensions.
So although Rodman has been regularly pilloried in the US and international media and has not fully articulated a policy of accepting a nuclear North Korea and giving it incentives to integrate into the community of nations, the United States and international community might want to do just that by first taking advantage of his attempt to talk to even those the US government despises.