Fourteen years ago on Monday, Daniel Pearl’s body was found in a shallow grave north of Karachi. May 16 always leaves me melancholic, as Danny was a good friend. This year’s anniversary, though, had me thinking of North Korea and a related bottle of scotch I owe the Wall Street Journal scribe.
We first become buddies in 1995 while working in the same Washington office. Danny and I quickly discovered a shared affinity for off-the-beaten-path travel, obscure art films and musicians few others had heard of. Once, we even talked our way backstage to meet one: Peter Himmelman, who later wrote a song about Danny’s brutal death at the hands al-Qaida. On our frequent beer evenings, whether in Washington, Paris or New Delhi, we’d debate geopolitical quagmires and bet on how they might turn out “12 or 15 years from now.” The wager was always the same: 18-year-old Macallan.
And I now owe Danny one thanks to the state of play in Pyongyang. I last saw him at the Taj Mahal Hotel bar in Mumbai in August 2001. That day, over too many overpriced draft beers, we debated topics, including whether the Internet would bring down China’s Communist Party, the euro would survive, Islam and modernity could easily coexist and Pakistan might become a failed state. One of our most spirited debates, though, was my contention that the Kim Dynasty would shift to modernizing and opening North Korea. Danny argued that 12 to 15 years on, Pyongyang would be as isolated as ever.
Bad call on my part. But it’s worth looking at why many of us Asia observers were so wrong about the Kims’ 14-plus years later.
Our Kim debate actually began a few years earlier, during Bill Clinton’s second term. I’d just returned from Seoul, where I had the honor of meeting Kim Dae-jung, Asia’s answer to Nelson Mandela and a personal hero to both of us. Danny was most jealous. He ran into my office, shut the door, opened the bottle of soju I brought back for him and said: “Now, tell me everything Seoul-man!”
This was back when Kim was rolling out his “Sunshine Policy” seeking detente with the North — an effort that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. It fizzled, thanks partly to then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s erratic behavior and U.S. President George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion. The moment Bush listed three “axis of evil” members — Iran, Iraq and North Korea — and invaded one, Pyongyang had every incentive to accelerate its nuclear program as a deterrent.
But what we optimists of the late 1990s also missed was the utter lack of creativity with which world powers approached Pyongyang. Sanctions, threats and brinkmanship only drove the Kims into greater isolation. We’ve simply applied the same pressure points over and over and over again hoping a different outcome would miraculously present itself. These maneuvers impressed today’s Dear Leader, Kim Jong Un, even less than his late father.
There was great hope in December 2011, when Kim Jong Un took power, that the Swiss-educated Michael Jordan fanatic would modernize the regime. Not just because of the then-twentysomething’s generational proclivities, but because GPS technology and military drones dented Pyongyang’s trade in currency counterfeiting and weapons sales. But Kim proved the optimists — me included — wrong again. The frequency of missile launches and nuclear tests to blackmail world powers for food and oil only increased. And the recent party congress extravaganza in Pyongyang, the first in 36 years, was an old-school signal that the Kim family business is sticking with tradition.
How can world leaders alter this dynamic? By taking three obvious steps to alter the carrot-and-stick mix.
First, give North Korea the Cuba treatment. When he restored diplomatic ties with Havana — even traveling there in March — U.S. President Barack Obama loudly admitted that a five-decade-old policy of isolating the Castros failed. Washington should do the same on North Korea. Obama’s team, for example, spent considerable political capital to bring Iran to the negotiating table, but very little on North Korea, which is far more nuclear-capable. At the same time, Cuba demonstrated how, far from pushing the Castro brothers from power, isolation strengthened their hold on power. So let’s try attacking North Korea with capitalism, not brinksmanship.
Second, drop the fanciful preconditions. North Korea is already a nuclear power and there’s a less-than-zero chance Kim will scrap his weapons before talking. As unpalatable as it sounds, the U.S., South Korea, Japan and other world powers must accept Kim’s nukes and work around them. Only then can a framework for non-proliferation be hammered out. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has talked passionately about reunifying the Korean Peninsula. In the last two years of her term, she should spearhead efforts to meet Pyongyang where it is in the real world, not where world powers wish it were in a perfect one.
Third, get Chinese President Xi Jinping on the case. In early 2015, Harvard University’s Kenneth Rogoff published a study on why trade embargoes, be they on Havana or Pyongyang, are destined to fail. In the case of North Korea, the problem is the Chinese border, which offers Kim a labyrinthine network of factories, industries and mercenaries to keep the family business going. It’s time Xi, Pyongyang’s main benefactor, closed the money spigot and threatened to turn off Kim’s allowance once and for all. Experts who say Beijing lacks leverage with the Kims ignore the fact that China has barely ever tried.
Oddly, one of the most creative policy shifts in Washington over the last decade involves bottles of 18-year-old Macallan. It worked to cut off the luxury-goods gravy train that Kim Jong Il, and now his son, long used as currency to buy loyalty from their generals. But rather than stopping the flow of Cadillacs, Rolexs, fur coats, iPods and, yes, premium scotch, why not attack the Kims with Cuba-style market opening instead? It’s not about rewarding a repressive regime for bad behavior, but admitting that the world’s approach toward North Korea just isn’t working.
William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, is based in Tokyo and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com
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