Engaging North Korea, on both high road and low road
29 Jul 2014|

A new dawn for North Korea?

Australia has a simple policy on North Korea: say ‘tsk-tsk’ to its ongoing nuclear and missile programs and lightly criticise Kim Jong-un’s leadership. Our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said as much last month. For a country whose stability directly impacts South Korea, China, Japan and the US—which represent our top four trading partners and include our biggest strategic ally and two closest partners in Asia—Australia’s ‘tick a box and move on’ approach to North Korea misses a major opportunity to influence change in one of the world’s most threatening and oppressive regimes.

Sure, Australia has other pressing concerns. Minister Bishop is busy responding to the MH17 tragedy in Ukraine, including coordinating the AFP force necessary to assist in the important duty of recovering the bodies. Prior to the MH17 disaster, on 30 June Minister Bishop highlighted two other main concerns: territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas; and social unrest resulting from wealth inequality in new middle-income countries. She’s also been busy establishing new relationships with countries in Southeast Asia. So, Australia’s got a lot on its plate. Moreover, Australia may be less interested in revising its policy on North Korea because Pyongyang doesn’t look poised to revise its policy on the world: its belligerence—and nuclear and missile development—continues. Perhaps Australia has become resigned to the position that there’s nothing it can do dramatically to alter the trajectory of the North’s WMD programs or its human-rights abuses, so why waste our diplomatic capital and energy?

While it’s true Australia holds weaker cards than the key players, Canberra shouldn’t have an all-or-nothing approach. It could take advantage of important social trends underway in North Korea and simultaneously seize the opportunity to influence the next generation of North Koreans. Let me tell you what I mean.

Technological advances are allowing greater amounts of information to seep into North Korea. DVDs and USBs carrying Western programs and information are being traded along the China–North Korea border as well as smuggled into the North by NGOs. We know from the accounts of North Korean defectors that Western programs are undermining the regime’s propaganda and opening the eyes of the public to their wealth inequalities. One defector said that South Korean DVDs were very effective at changing North Koreans’ minds. He said: ‘They portray a South Korean middle-class existence so luxurious compared to their own, and a society so much wealthier and more advanced. North Koreans see the lives of their South Korean and Chinese neighbours and they compare it to their own existence’. North Koreans are also learning about their wealth inequalities through trade networks that connect them with some of the 20,000-odd North Koreans who have resettled in the South.

Although the North has attempted to crack down on the trade, the trickle of information is impossible to stop as military elites provide part of the market. With foreign influences and information flowing into the country, the prospects for popular discontent and dwindling support for the regime increase. That’s a view held by a number of North Korean experts, including Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University. In 2009, Professor Lankov argued (paywalled) that ‘an information campaign would beat the regime’. Given international sanctions have been ineffective to date and the fact that the third Kim looks unlikely to implement domestic reforms, Professor Lankov’s assessment may provide a path forward—albeit not a rapid one.

Up until the beginning of this year, the US supported the NGOs that send information into North Korea through the National Endowment for Democracy. The US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy has since offered grants to groups to promote ‘access to information into, out of, and within North Korea’. To bolster those efforts, Australia should consider funding similar grants to support the civil-society groups that send DVDs, USBs, transistor radios, and leaflets with information into the North. Of course, prior to making its decision Australia should consult with the South Korean government and with NGOs based in the South. It’s important to consider how supporting NGOs engaged in those activities will impact our relations with Seoul as well as the accuracy of the information the groups intend to smuggle into the North.

Australia should also forego its non-engagement policy and engage the North. Engagement isn’t intended to reward North Korea’s bad behaviour but rather to expose North Koreans to the outside world. Australia could start by accepting Pyongyang’s request to reopen a North Korean Embassy in Canberra. Although it is likely only elites will staff the embassy, it will allow them to experience life in a democratic, free-market society and they will return to the North and share their experiences with friends and family.

Further, Australia should ease visa restrictions and again support student exchanges. Up until 2006, ANU hosted North Korean economics students. But since 2006, sanctions preventing North Koreans from obtaining visas have made similar programs impossible. Educational exchange can allow Australia to influence a new generation of North Koreans and expose them at a young age to an open, liberal society.

The argument for Australia to engage North Korea was made here and here in 2011, here in 2013, and most recently here in February 2014. In addition, the growing body of evidence, including defector testimony, that information from the outside world is undermining the regime’s grip on power gives Australia the option to increase the flow and speed up the process or stand by idly and draw it out. Our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade should decide if it wants to continue its current position on the North or expedite the flow of information into the country and shorten the lifespan of a regime determined to develop nuclear weapons and oppress its people.

Hayley Channer is an analyst at ASPI. She presented these views at a recent Kokoda Foundation event, Kokoda NextImage courtesy of Flickr user (stephan).