After Cuba, North Korea’s Turn

Barack Obama’s speech for justifying America’s restored diplomatic relations with Cuba should also apply to North Korea.

Let us imagine for a moment such a speech by Barack Obama: “Good afternoon. Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of North Korea. In the most significant change in our policy in more than 60 years, we will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead, we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.”

Last Wednesday’s speech by the president announcing the restoration with Cuba could have applied almost precisely to the North Korean situation. The next step in this repositioning of the U.S. on the international scene ought to be Iran. That process is underway and is the most anticipated. However, the similarities between Cuba and North Korea are more striking: In both cases, the politics of isolation and economic sanctions against the enemy have totally failed. Worse, this approach has been largely responsible for maintaining authoritarian regimes — totalitarian in the case of North Korea — whose greatest victims are their own citizens.

The Kims of Pyongyang, much like the Castros of Havana or the ayatollahs in Iran, base their legitimacy on their capacity to resist American imperialism.

North Korea is the most dramatic example of this effect. This country has been subjected to American sanctions since the beginning of hostilities in 1950. Thus, for nearly 65 years these two states have been technically at war, since no peace treaty was ever signed following the 1953 armistice. Kim Jong Un, just like his father, Kim Jong Il, and his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, lives under the conviction that the U.S. wishes to eliminate him. This is simply paranoia, since American sanctions have often been accompanied by speeches advocating regime change.

If there is one country where a military intervention seems justified in the name of interference, it is surely North Korea. The fate of most of its 23 million citizens is wretched, as the Human Rights Council recently reminded us. And yet, the pressure and threats, just as with Cuba, have thus far not affected the regime’s stability.

Of course, there are many differences between Cuba and North Korea. In the Korean case, the geopolitical context is singularly complex because it is at the intersection of the strategic interests of China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. In order to emerge from this impasse — the final vestige of the Cold War — it is strength, not weakness, to make the gesture which transforms the order.

What Obama dared with Castro, he must also attempt with Kim Jong Un. Incidentally, this plan was a promise of his 2008 presidential campaign. To be fair, a first step was accomplished in 2009, when Washington removed Pyongyang from the list of countries supporting terrorism, but this was not sufficient. Kim Jong Il’s illness and subsequent succession in 2011 certainly curbed American momentum. In order to assert his power, Kim Jong Un had to immediately beef up his talk by accompanying it with nuclear tests.

But the Cuban precedent could henceforth serve as an example. Establishing dialogue must begin with mutual respect, as Raul Castro highlighted in his televised speech. Next comes confidence. What is fundamentally new with Obama is that the U.S. has renounced toppling hostile political regimes. “It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse,” explained Obama. “Even if that worked — and it hasn’t for 50 years — we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.”

So then, after Cuba, North Korea? Sixty years after the end of combat, a peace treaty should be conceivable.

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1 Comment

  1. North Korea is nothing at all like Cuba. The North has nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and they have threatened America with them. They run a virtual slave state and are still in a technical state of war with America and the South.
    The North has “9,495,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel, it is the largest military organization on Earth” per Wikipedia, and the Cuban “Revolutionary Armed Forces number 79,000 regular troops”.

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