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A Pragmatic Approach to Resolving the North Korea Nuclear Problem (Review)

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Glyn Ford. 2018.
Talking to North Korea: Ending the Nuclear Standoff
London: Pluto Press
ISBN 9780745337852

The June 2018 Donald Trump–Kim Jong-un summit in Singapore reignited hope that the North Korea nuclear issue could be resolved diplomatically and peacefully. However, the second Trump–Kim summit in Hanoi in February 2019 ended early due to huge differences between the two sides. The devil is in the details: while both reaffirmed their commitment to denuclearization, the two sides failed to achieve an agreement on the sequencing of steps to be taken. What move each side makes will be considered sufficient by the other side before the latter takes corresponding measures? This dilemma will continue to frustrate both the United States and North Korea in the future since they lack basic trust in each other.

Veteran North Korea scholar Glyn Ford has produced another significant book on North Korea’s nuclear program, which helps readers understand the complexity of the problem. A former member of the European Parliament and now a member of the British Labor Party’s International Committee, Ford has traveled to North Korea nearly 50 times. He is one of the very few Westerners who have had such close-range contact with North Korea since his first trip in 1997. His first-hand experience and deep understanding of North Korean politics and his empathy for the North Korean people made him a unique scholar among the crowded field of Korea studies.

Ford set out by dispelling five biggest myths about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK): It is a Stalinist state run on the basis of Marxism-Leninism, Beijing and Pyongyang are close allies like ‘lips and teeth’, Pyongyang wants early unification with the South, North Korea is a command economy, and lifting American sanctions is the key to denuclearization (pp. 3-4). Great changes have taken place in the DPRK under three generations of the Kim dynasty. Yet, as Ford put it, ‘everything has changed, and nothing’ (p. xxiii). Despite its achievements in becoming a nuclear power and the emergence of ‘kiosk capitalism’ in Pyongyang and other cities, North Korea remains a tightly-controlled society with appalling human rights violations. North Korean leaders care most about regime survival and live in constant insecurity.

Ford’s argument is clear and consistent: we should aim for ‘critical engagement’ – for ‘changing the regime’ for the better, not ‘regime change’ (p. xxiv). He discusses several commonly-held options for a settlement to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, such as US-led military action, which is considered too risky even by American military leaders; regime change, but without a viable replacement for Kim Jong-un; a total trade embargo, which is essentially impossible unless Beijing, Moscow, and Seoul are fully onboard; and finally a negotiated settlement. Unsurprisingly, Ford argues the last option is the best one.

He recognizes major difficulties in the peace process. Ill will, lack of trust, and ignorance of what is intrinsically possible are just some of those obstacles. He also suggests that the June 2018 Kim–Trump summit in Singapore was more spectacle than substance. Nevertheless, this whimsical yet unprecedented approach by Trump offers hope, laying a foundation for a negotiated settlement. He proposes that perhaps the two sides should reach a new Agreed Framework similar to the one in 1994, based upon which the two sides can seriously and verifiably follow through their end’s of the bargain. However, it is unclear who can serve as honest guarantors and police the implementation process.

Ford is also fully aware of domestic and international obstacles to a negotiated outcome. For example, hawks in Washington such as Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton and to a lesser extent secretary of state Mike Pompeo may not wish to see a peaceful resolution; and as a result of divisive politics in the United States, the Democrats are likely to torpedo Trump’s peace efforts. Ford discusses the complicated relations between China and North Korea. Until recently, the relationship has been ‘a toxic one’ and it would be difficult to ‘underestimate the degree of mistrust on both sides’ (p. 228).

However, Ford forgets to mention another key problem in Washington’s political circle: China-bashing. With China being identified as America’s primary strategic competitor, politicians and think-tankers in Washington have a free rein now to demonize China. It has become politically incorrect to say anything positive about China in the Trump era. China’s advancement in high tech is considered a threat to US national security; its Belt and Road Initiative is labeled by US officials including Vice President Mike Pence as a form of ‘debt trap diplomacy’. And the FBI director Christopher Wray repeatedly and publicly calls China ‘the most significant threat’ to the US and calls for ‘a whole-of-society response by us’ to the perceived Chinese threat. With such Cold War-style rhetoric towards Beijing and the resulting bad feelings between Washington and Beijing, it may be wishful thinking to expect China to throw its full support behind Washington in US–DPRK negotiations or any future resolution to the North Korea issue.

Ford’s book also addresses internal changes in North Korea and its challenges in foreign relations. Though North Korea was never a ‘Hermit Kingdom’, as of now it enjoys little international support for its efforts to break out of the US-led sanctions. However, what North Korea wants most is security guarantee from the United States, which successive US administrations have been unwilling to offer. Misconstruing North Korea’s domestic priorities had led to America’s misguided policy towards North Korea.

Based on decades of direct experience in dealing with North Korea, Ford has written a thoughtful, insightful, and powerful book on North Korean politics, society, and the nuclear problem. His argument that the United States should approach North Korea directly as a pragmatic way to move forward is a sound policy recommendation. This well-written book should be read by every scholar and policy maker on North Korea.

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