Stanford scholars propose new strategy for dealing with North Korea

Experts from Stanford's Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center have proposed a new approach to dealing with North Korea that focuses on engagement and building confidence between South and North Korea.

AP/Ahn Young-joon Korean DMZ

A South Korean visitor in 2010 looks to the North Korean side through a wire fence decorated with ribbons with messages wishing for the reunification of both the Koreas.

Stanford researchers have proposed a new approach to dealing with North Korea that focuses on building confidence between the two Koreas.

At a Sept. 15 hearing at the South Korean National Assembly, researchers from Stanford's Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center presented a report that concludes that South Korea is the only country both willing and able to try a different approach toward the North Korea problem.

The authors were Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Shorenstein center; David Straub, associate director of the Korea Program; and Joyce Lee, research associate for the Korea Program.

“There is considerable urgency for Seoul to act,” they wrote in the report. During the past year, North Korea continued to develop nuclear weapons and the relationship between it and South Korea worsened. Meanwhile, distrust between the United States and China in the region has made it less likely that those two countries can cooperate to change North Korea's behavior.

The report was released at a public hearing of the Special Committee on Inter-Korean Relations, Exchange and Cooperation of the South Korean National Assembly in Seoul. The Stanford team is also scheduled to discuss the study at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 29.

South Korean leadership

According to the report, South Korea is the one country that can jumpstart the North Korean engagement process. The two countries share a history as "Korea," and today, South Korea's status as a regional power gives it sway with both China and the United States.

“Only the Republic of Korea has both the need and the potential influence to change this dangerous trajectory on the Korean Peninsula," the researchers wrote.

Their report lays out four main steps that South Korea can undertake to create a foundation for peaceful unification with North Korea:

  • Focus on the pursuit of mutual interests and benefits rather than on symbolism and appeals to national sentiment.
  • Apply market principles and international standards in economic activities.
  • Collaborate with other countries and third-party companies in both economic and people-to-people projects.
  • Be pragmatic and flexible in pursuing engagement at both the state-to-state and grassroots levels in complementary ways.

The proposed approach would involve increased exchanges between South Korea and North Korea, the report stated. This, the researchers wrote, would be applied in a principled, systematic way, based largely on expanding a domestic consensus in South Korea that treats South Korean engagement of the North as necessary for improving the situation on the peninsula.

This plan isn't viewed as incompatible with maintaining pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, wrote Shin and his colleagues.

The next step

The North Korea problem is complex and replete with past failures at engagement, the report noted. South Korea has lacked a domestic political consensus about how to deal with North Korea throughout the last several decades.

The South Korean government that assumed office in 2013, led by President Park Geun-hye, pursues a North Korea policy of trustpolitik that aims to build trust through a step-by-step process.

According to the report, a "tailored engagement" approach by South Korea toward North Korea would involve the following measures:

• Reorganize the South Korean government itself to facilitate a more coordinated formulation and implementation of North Korea policy.

• Achieve much more consensus within South Korea on how to deal with North Korea.

• Seek to win support of the major powers, especially the United States and China, for this new approach to North Korea.

Development of trust

Developing trust is essential to de-escalate tension between the Koreas, Shin and his colleagues wrote. Without progress in building confidence, the two countries can hardly collaborate on even straightforward projects, such as expanding the existing Kaesong industrial complex, a bilateral industrial park located just north of the demilitarized zone that serves as the border between the two nations.

Solving more basic issues and participating in joint initiatives can help pave the way toward reconciliation during President Park’s administration and into the future, according to the report.

“Reconciliation and convergence would improve many aspects of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, including eventually facilitating North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons program and the achievement of unification,” the study noted.

Gi-Wook Shin, Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center: (650) 723-2408, gwshin@stanford.edu

David Straub, Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center: (650) 725-8073, dstraub@stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu