Time to talk

If there’s one thing that could diffuse the situation with North Korea, nearly a month after the country set off a nuclear test, it’s diplomatic conversation, says Professor of Japanese and Korean Studies G. Cameron Hurst.

“Diplomacy doesn’t mean talking to people you like,” he says. “You have to sit down and talk to [North Korea].”

Negotiations have happened before in 2003 and 2004, when North Korea and the U.S. sat down with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia for six-party talks. But it remains to be seen if it will happen again. Hurst points out that President Bush doesn’t want to talk with the North Koreans for fear of appearing to give in—but says that North Korea desperately wants a deal from the U.S.

“We are one of the few countries in the world that has no diplomatic relations with North Korea,” says Hurst, who is also chair of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and director of the Center for East Asian Studies. “We have this feeling that if we keep throttling them, they will fail.”

Failure of the North Korean state is the last thing that South Korea and China would want, he notes, as those countries would surely experience a huge influx of North Korean refugees who would become burdens on those countries’ economies. There’s also not a replacement government waiting in the wings to take over after Kim Jong Il. “They don’t want to see a hard landing here. They don’t want to see a crash,” says Hurst.

Some believe that China’s cooperation is key in getting through to North Korea. Administration officials have touted China’s signature to the U.N. Security Council resolution calling for sanctions as a sign that China is serious about North Korea. Hurst says that China’s public scolding of North Korea for holding the nuclear test was a matter of calling Kim Jong Il on the carpet. Both China and Russia, however, are not willing to push the North Koreans as hard as the U.S., he says.

Hurst points out that the explosion of Oct. 9 was “quite small” and that it is doubtful that North Korea will try another test. He also says that the U. S. is not threatened directly by North Korea, because they don’t have missiles that can reach this country. They do, however, have thousands of missiles pointed at Seoul, South Korea’s capital.

Looming this winter is a possible food shortage for North Koreans, which could exacerbate hard lives in rural parts of the country. In contrast, Hurst says that in the capital, Pyongyang, many handpicked individuals live good lives with plenty of food. While the city is filled with many gorgeous avenues, they remain largely empty since very few people own cars, and buildings are often dark due to electrical outages. In the past decade, life in the country has changed dramatically, says Hurst, as people now receive wages and purchase food, clothing and housing, instead of being given those things by the government. “There is a great deal of flux,” he says. “The state no longer seems to have as much power [as] they once had.”

Hurst says that the North Korean and Chinese border has become permeable, as people defect out and small electronic items such as phones make their way into the Communist country. All North Korean citizens get their news from state-controlled media. “I can’t imagine a place that’s less open to the outside world than North Korea,” he says. Journalists are allowed inside the country under restrictions—though American reporters are more severely restricted than others.

While Kim Jong Il is a dictator who prefers to shield himself from the limelight, Hurst says that “he’s certainly not crazy and he’s not unpredictable. We tend to focus on the bizarre aspects of [him].” Hurst adds that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright found the leader articulate and well prepared.

Hurst argues that slowly opening the country up to the outside world would help to ease tension between North Korea and other nations. More than 50 years after it ended, the Korean War still resonates in that country, as evidenced by the fact that North and South Korea never even ratified a formal end to the conflict. Hurst notes that the U.S. actually had military in North Korea at one point attempting to locate the remains of people who died there in the war. “Those are the kinds of things you need to do.”

Originally published on November 2, 2006.

Originally published on November 2, 2006