Isn’t it time to consider an additional strategy when dealing with North Korea?

Washington’s current policy debate is so consumed by the nuclear proliferation problem and past solutions that often it forgets to analyze the broader picture. Much of the discussion surrounding the recent nuclear and missile tests by North Korea has centered on the Six Party talks and engaging China on enacting tougher UN-mandated sanctions.

In the lead-up to the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), commentators across the world continue to portray Kim Jong-il as the spoiler to a productive disarmament process, yet rarely address America’s persistent failure in policy. Simon Tay for the Taipei Times:

Kim Jong-il is a naughty boy who wants attention and incentives to behave decently. Rather than debate with her counterparts, Clinton needs to ensure that other countries in the six-party framework, especially China and South Korea, are on the same page as the US.

At a recent event, What if North Korea Says No?, co-hosted by the Atlantic Council and Korea Economic Institute, Dr. Muttiah Alagappa posited, “Weapons are not the source of insecurity but rather a symptom.” By exploring North Korea’s actions through this lens, new perspectives emerge. If the true source of insecurity driving North Korea’s nuclear program is the ever increasing power imbalance between the state and its neighbors, then a prudent solution would be to address these concerns through engagement.

While many American commentators point to the apparent failure of South Korea’s ‘Sunshine’ policy as reason that engagement with North Korea is impossible, the European Union, a far less acknowledged actor, is still attempting a potentially successful strategy. The EU actively gives aid to the North Korean state, primarily as food to youth and new mothers, and as a result, has the most substantial Western presence on the ground. The programs, while small, are providing valuable services to the North Korean people.

Despite a new round of nuclear testing and violations of the UN resolutions, European Commission President Barroso was quoted in Reuters as saying:

We consider [the recent nuclear and missile tests] a provocation and we strongly condemn them. At the same time, I think we should be ready to come back to the six-party talks and to try to work for a peaceful development in all the Korean peninsula.

This ability to decouple realpolitik and human security concerns allows the EU to provide services that have the potential, if cultivated correctly, to delegitimize parts of the state propaganda. Rural development aid, outlined in the EU’s country agenda 2001-2004, allows Western ideals to percolate through the general population of North Korea, an essential part of Kim Jong-il’s power base. As a result, North Korean officials find it increasingly difficult to decry the predatory nature of an international system that is increasing the average Korean’s standard of living by providing aid for water management, food production, rural livelihood and income generation, among other poverty reduction measures.

Western commentators often presume that the current system in North Korea is unsustainable and that if China pitches in and tightens the screws, the regime will fall, or at least comply. This thinking has been unproductive since the 1994 nuclear deal that temporarily froze North Korea’s nuclear program. It is time to more closely scrutinize what Europe has to offer on this issue. Can humanitarian engagement help to delegitimize the propaganda that has brainwashed the citizens of North Korea?

If Washington keep its current policy but also forges ahead with a new humanitarian strategy along the lines proposed by the Europeans, Northeast Asia would have a far greater chance for a stable security environment.

Ross Rustici is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s Energy and Environment Program.  He is studying for an MA in International Relations and an MA in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University.