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Debate: Normalizing relations with North Korea

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Should the West seek to normalize relations with North Korea, even a nuclear one?

Background and context

North Korea remains one of the most reclusive States in the world. With limited trade and diplomatic relations established with only a few countries, including China and Russia, the hermit kingdom of East Asia has been effectively isolated from the West since the unofficial end of the Korean War in 1953. Its aggressive tendencies against its neighbours, South Korea and Japan, have in the past caused much worry to the United States and other nations in the region and humanitarian groups have also consistently voiced their concern over the regime’s poor human rights record as well as the acute food shortage in North Korea which has caused widespread starvation. Nevertheless, winds of change appear to be blowing as North Korea’s President Kim Jong Il has recently expressed his eagerness to establish closer diplomatic and trade ties with the West. The crucial question is, should the West, specifically the US and the UK reciprocate ? At present, of the two, only the UK has official ties with the regime, this having only been established in October 2000.

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Argument #1

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Yes

One of the primary reasons that is often cited to support the establishment of diplomatic and trade relations with North Korea is that of humanitarian concerns. It is an unassailable fact that scores of North Korean citizens die from poverty and starvation annually. At present there remain many barriers in place that ought to be eliminated in order to encourage the flow of more aid, especially food aid to the country.

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No

It is foolhardy to presume that no aid is received by North Korea at present due to the various barriers that exist. Arguably, the existing barriers do not significantly hinder the channelling of aid to the country. Conversely, the problem is not about the amount of aid, but about the distribution of aid by the North Korean government. Much of the aid that Pyongyang receives is not handed over to the ordinary people. Rather, it is often used to build up the country’s Armed Forces and to fund the extravagant lifestyles of its political elite.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Although there are concerns with the human rights record of North Korea, which remains one of the worst in the world and with the dictatorial regime that is in power, trading with North Korea would encourage the creation of wealth in the country. This in turn will foster the emergence of a stable middle class. Coupled with the free flow of information which is a corollary of free trade, a prosperous North Korean middle class will eventually demand political change and this will ultimately lead to a gradual democratization of the country and an improvement in its human rights records. Slow and steady economic development does lead to political development, as was the case with South Korea and Taiwan. Both had authoritarian governments in place initially, but have now flourished to become one of the most stable democracies in East Asia.

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No

It is a mere assertion that economic growth will lead to political reform. Firstly, it should be noted that any benefits derived from trade will be enjoyed by an inner circle of political leaders and their cronies. There is nothing to suggest that wealth will “trickle” down to the ordinary people. Paradoxically, trade with the regime will only supply it with substantial financial resources which would only serve to entrench it deeper in power. An example is Indonesia where until recently, a sizeable amount of the country’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of former President Suharto’s family members and friends. Secondly, the leap from economic prosperity to political reform is not trouble-free. China remains a classic example of a country where international trade has yet to dent the existing political system that is in place.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Trade with North Korea will enable it to become more globalised. A North Korea that is dependent on international trade will have less of an incentive to act belligerently in an isolationist manner. Conversely, it will now have more of an incentive to act as a responsible member of the international community.

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No

The cementing of official ties with the regime, coupled with absolute free trade with the regime should be treated with caution. To do so would run the risk of the West losing its "bargaining chip" in, amongst others, persuading North Korea to end its missile programme entirely, peacefully reunify with South Korea and to institutionalise democratic reforms in the country.

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Argument #4

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Yes

During the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s visit to North Korea in October 2000, Kim Jong Il promised unconditionally that North Korea would cease all further tests of its Taepodong missile programme. It has also promised to end all sales of its missiles to rogue States like Libya and Iraq. Engaging North Korea diplomatically will enable the West to hold Pyongyang to its promises. This will represent a massive step in securing permanent peace in an otherwise volatile region.

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No

North Korea’s sincerity in co-operating on defence and security issues is suspect, considering that it has made similar promises in the past not to test-fire its missiles, only to renege upon it. It is also worth observing that North Korea generates hundreds of millions of dollars per annum from its missile exports and is highly unlikely to give up doing so easily. In reality, the West should not let its guard down and should continue to cast a watchful eye on the North Koreans to ensure that it does not do anything which may jeopardize the peace in the region.

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Argument #5

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Yes

The recent gestures made by Kim Jong Il towards South Korea should be lauded. In the year 2000, President Kim Dae Jung of the South visited Pyongyang for the first time in pursuit of his “Sunshine Policy” which eventually envisages peaceful reunification with the North. The West’s recognition of North Korea diplomatically will help to nudge North Korea down the road to peace and will undoubtedly help to speed up the entire peace process.

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No

Although the recent developments in Korea provides much hope, we should recognize the fact that very few concrete measures have resulted from this. Apart from the exchange of visitors between the two countries, there has been nothing else tangible to show as a result of the thawing of relations between the two Koreas. Instead, additional leverage should be applied onto the North to extract more concessions with regards to the reunification issue from it as a precursor to future permanent acceptance by the West.

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