Want to know about North Korea? Don’t ask the CIA, ask the AP

Over the past week there has been medium-sized media frenzy over the fact that North Korea is assuming the presidency of the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD).  Really, the world’s most notorious proliferator heading the world’s disarmament body?  Shock and disdain has been the reaction, and some nations, including Canada, announced boycotts of the meetings in Geneva to protest.  They have a point. North Korea heading the Conference on Disarmament is somewhat like putting W.C. Fields in charge of Alcoholics Anonymous. 

But the real story lies in America’s lack of earnest engagement for more than two years while Pyongyang has unveiled new nuclear facilities and announced plans to fire up a nuclear reactor next year.  Yes, having a two month-long session of the CD presided over by the DPRK is silly and perhaps even offensive; but the CD has been impotent for years.  No damage will result.  What could lead to disaster is the United States’ ongoing policy of “strategic patience”: shorthand for “do nothing and wait for them to reach out.”  The problem is that when North Korea reaches out it is usually in the form of a weapons test or actual attack on the South.   The most recent “overture” to us was the unveiling of a modern uranium enrichment factory and a nuclear reactor under construction that the North has vowed to turn on in 2012.  The latter is particularly worrying due to shoddy construction and a lack to true expertise on the operation of such a plant.  Until we re-orient our approach to the North we have little hope of successfully mitigating imminent threats or addressing North Korea’s longstanding nuclear bad behavior.

On this score the U.S. can learn some things from the Fourth Estate.  In the past week both the AP and Reuters have announced groundbreaking plans that place people and equipment in North Korea to report on developments in the Hermit Kingdom.  AP is opening a bona-fide news bureau in the capital of Pyongyang and Reuters is placing a satellite dish there to broadcast at will.  While the expectations of freedom of movement and editorial control for these western news agencies are not high, it’s important is that they are there, and can begin to establish trust and confidence with the state-controlled news organ KCNA.  Sounds a lot like what diplomats do when negotiating with adversaries:  first you have to meet, and then slowly begin to have discussions, get to know each other and identify common ground. 

To be sure it is not an alluring notion to “deal with” North Korea directly.  Its citizens have no rights and its leadership is about the most odious you can point to in the modern world.  It is a known nuclear proliferator, human rights abuser and has violated numerous international laws.  But the objective track record has clearly shown that, as difficult and sometimes unsatisfying as it can be when we engage with the North it is far worse when we don’t.  Until Pyongyang feels confident that we will not attack it and have no designs to destroy its leadership, we will not enjoy stability in the region.  That can’t happen if we cross our arms and turn our backs. 



Photo by John Pavelka on Flickr