At night at the Kobangsan Guest House in Pyongyang, North Korea, there is not much to do before falling asleep. There is no network for cellphones or Internet for laptops to connect to. North Korean television broadcasts a limited number of hours a day. It airs a loop of propaganda clips and a replay of a speech by Kim Jong Eun, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. The young leader is shown saying now that security has been guaranteed by a successful satellite launch and a nuclear test — a combination that, in his eyes, sets sufficient deterrence from foreign hostilities and invasion, a fear deeply ingrained in North Koreans’ consciousness — the nation’s attention can turn to economic growth.
Our delegation heard a similar message from government officials. But while there is great skepticism about what is said in private diplomatic meetings, there is less doubt when the leader speaks to his public directly, carrying a similar message, three times a day every day. The leader is preparing his people for what is coming next.
Unfortunately, to Kim Jong Eun the shift in focus to economic development is reversible. His representatives emphasized to us that if the United States pursues additional sanctions in the United Nations, an act the North Koreans perceive as hostile, they will retaliate, threatening yet another nuclear test.
Indeed, in recent days we have heard new public threats of nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches. During our visit, Eric Schmidt, the co-leader of our delegation and the executive chairman of Google, spoke about the advantages of adopting the Internet and increased mobile technology. His message was well-received by officials, scientists and students. But economic development, access to technology and progress don’t go together with nuclear threats. These threats lead to increased isolation, decreased international aid and freezes in technological progress.
The status of relations among North Korea, the United States and the rest of the Asian peninsula countries is fraught. Clearly we all see the world in radically different ways. Changing the course of these relations will take courageous leadership.
First and foremost, the North Koreans should refrain from performing any additional nuclear tests or ballistic missile launches. If you want to climb out of a hole, first stop digging. If North Korea’s leader truly intends to refocus on economic development for his people, he needs to break the cycle of escalation. A good start could be to release Kenneth Bae, the American detained since November.
Second, it is important to recognize on our end that the lack of direct dialogue is not helping us achieve our goals. Dialogue is not an endorsement or legitimization of your counterpart’s positions. Rather, it is an exchange of arguments and ideas that help both sides better understand the other and identify opportunities. The United States takes issue with the conduct of the North Korean regime with regards to its nuclear program, proliferation and its violations of human rights. The diplomatic toolbox is robust and diverse. While sanctions are merited and are a legitimate tool, so is dialogue. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Third, the North Korean leader is not the only freshman in the region. New leadership in South Korea, China and Japan points to new opportunities. Specifically, recent public statements in both South and North Korea hint at a renewed interest in dialogue. The international community should encourage this dialogue suggested by South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye.
Fourth, we cannot rely on China, North Korea’s closest ally, to prevent nuclear proliferation. Issues such as zones of influence and refugees complicate the Chinese-North Korean relationship. The North Koreans, preoccupied with self-reliance, recognize these complexities and do not simply obey Chinese instructions or requests.
Much of what we saw recently in Pyongyang was staged, but not everything. While members of the foreign ministry constantly escorted us, we did, upon our request, get a couple of chances to interact with citizens during their daily activities. We took a semi-spontaneous ride in the subway system; we saw acclaimed acrobats perform an adaptation of a feudal love story in front of thousands of families in a freezing theater; we saw children playing in the snow in the streets.
Our societies are very different, no doubt. But North Koreans desire and deserve a better quality of life than the one they have. And if their young leader is true to the statements he has made to his people about improving their livelihood, the first thing he should do is break the cycle of escalation, refrain from additional tests and, along with the United States, engage in direct dialogue.
Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, was energy secretary and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration. Mickey Bergman is senior adviser to the Richardson Center for Global Engagement and executive director of the Aspen Institute Global Alliances Program.