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U.S. Can Gain by Engaging New North Korean Hermit-in-Chief: View

December 20, 2011

Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) -- With the death of Kim Jong Il, the world is both a better and a more dangerous place. Better, because over his nearly two-decade rule of North Korea, Kim Jong Il killed or brutalized millions of his countrymen, illicitly spread nuclear technology and stoked regional tension and conflict. More dangerous, because Kim’s heir apparent, his son Kim Jong Un, is untested and unknown.

Rumor has it that Kim Jong Un likes American basketball and expensive sneakers. He may be 28, or he may be 29. He may speak passable English and German. He may or may not command the military’s full support. But one thing we do know: in November 2010, two months after he was designated his father’s successor, North Korea launched an artillery barrage on a South Korean island, killing four people -- one of the most brazen attacks since the Korean War, and one that came on the heels of the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean patrol boat in which 46 sailors died.

Kim Jong Il’s death is likely to cause the North Korean regime to close ranks and focus on cementing his son’s succession. Although there is always the chance of some provocation, the regime’s focus will likely be on maintaining stability and observing an extended mourning period for the now-departed “Dear Leader.”

Forward-Looking Diplomacy

Yet that’s no reason for the U.S. not to remain forward-leaning in its engagement with North Korea. Just prior to Kim Jong Il’s death, the U.S. was on the verge of announcing the resumption of food aid to North Korea, a decision that was to have been followed by a North Korean agreement not to enrich uranium. The Barack Obama administration is now apparently planning to defer that announcement. But why not proceed?

Yes, the North Koreans might, in this sensitive period, resist the monitoring regime that was to accompany such assistance. Yet going ahead with the gesture would be more than a sign of goodwill. In fact, if the Obama administration had decided to proceed with the aid earlier this year, it would have had more eyes and ears on the ground during this delicate transition.

And as to goodwill, the U.S. can surely come up with an artfully worded condolence statement -- as it did in 1994, at the death of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung -- that conveys American sympathies to the North Korean people and expresses hope for a brighter future. And better to do so sooner than later. Words matter: When the State Department spokesperson says that the U.S. wants to make sure that food aid doesn’t end up “on some leader’s banquet table,” it makes for a snappy domestic sound bite but lousy diplomacy.

Of course, every positive gesture to the North runs the risk of alienating South Korea. Ensuring that this key ally feels secure and appreciated is essential, and will require a diplomatic balancing act. After last year’s deadly incidents, South Korean officials informed their U.S. counterparts that they were weary of tit-for-tat, and would likely respond disproportionately to future provocations. This is worrisome: As with the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran, a spontaneous outbreak of hostilities on the Korean peninsula is a nightmare scenario for U.S. military planners.

Keeping Things Calm

The U.S. must persuade the South that the more the outside world can engage constructively with North Korea in these crucial months ahead, the better. China, which used to boast that its relations with North Korea were “closer than lips and teeth,” has a strong interest in seeing that the incoming regime does not lash out. But over the long run, North Korea’s neighbors and the U.S. will not benefit if a weak and dependent Kim Jong Un effectively turns his country into a Chinese client state.

Broader contacts, whether through talks between the U.S. and North Korean militaries on repatriating the remains of U.S. soldiers, limited foreign investment in special export zones like the Kaesong Industrial Complex, or humanitarian assistance provided by nongovernmental organizations, are more likely than isolation to ensure peace on the peninsula and to increase the chances that the future of North Korea’s people is brighter than their past.

--Editors: James Gibney, Tobin Harshaw

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