Engaging in cultural exchange and trade with North Korea would be more productive than the US's existing failed policy.

As has become habitual by now, another North Korean missile or nuclear test has been followed by a brief flurry of commentary with advice for the U.S. on how to deal with the situation. While this commentary has generally acknowledged that the current U.S. policy toward North Korea has not been effective in changing North Korea’s policies and actions to be more advantageous to the U.S., there remains a steady stream of calls for more of the same, by “strengthening” the existing sanctions regime. One might legitimately wonder what sanctions, against whom, for which products that are not currently in place, could be expected to have any substantial effect. Increasingly, this public commentary has also included suggestions for the U.S. to cajole, pressure, or convince China – the country with the most extensive and active political and economic relationship with North Korea, and its closest geographic neighbor, to use its influence to pressure North Korea into ending its nuclear weapons development. In doing so, this commentary more or less mirrors existing U.S. government policy. It has not worked out so far.

North Korea serves as a physical and political buffer between China and South Korea (vastly richer than North Korea, generally democratic, and U.S.-allied), as well as, indirectly, Japan and the U.S. itself. China has little to fear from North Korea, as it too has a nuclear deterrent, and North Korea is not otherwise a military threat. China imports exotic foods, precious metals and especially raw materials from NK at advantageous arrangements to itself, and with the barest minimum of competition; North Korea is a small but very useful trading partner for the Chinese, both at the large-scale government level and at the level of individual and small-business traders and merchants (legal, and illegal but bribe paying). One can only wonder why China would give this up just because the U.S. wants it to. Most people, when they ask for something, offer something in exchange if they have serious hopes of making a deal. Not making such offers (or in some cases, not so much as realizing that such a trade-off is necessary) makes the U.S. policy and/or those commentating on it seem rather naïve or disingenuous.

The reasons for China’s actions and attitude may be better understood by a comparison to a similar international relationship. Country A is a large economic and military power, widely involved in international politics and eager for resources and raw materials the world over. Country B is not a free country – its government is absolutist; transfer of power is hereditary; dissent is not tolerated – political dissent is suppressed, punishment sometimes takes the form of public executions, at times by gruesome and cruel means. Business in Country B is done in part by a system of bribes and kickbacks up the ladder mafia-style to the maximum benefit of those highest up the chain. Country B sells Country A large quantities of its very useful natural resources to help feed country A’s great appetite. In return, Country A sells military equipment to Country B and protects it from local rivals and international scrutiny of its government.

While these criteria could easily apply to China and North Korea, this situation differs from the North Korea – China relationship in two main respects. North Korea is developing nuclear weapons. China would hardly desire this, but has made the calculation that they can withstand the annoyance given the other benefits to the relationship and the fact that the nuclear deterrent is primarily aimed at others. In our example case, Country B is not publically known or thought to be developing nuclear weapons, but is actively working against the interests of Country A by using a significant part of its profits from selling natural resources to Country A in order to fund the spread of propaganda, schools, teachers and appurtenances promoting a philosophy diametrically opposed to Country A’s general practices and beliefs. Over several decades this has resulted in killings and attacks directed at Country A and in the factory-like production of anti-Country A propaganda and the funding (direct or tacitly allowed) of terrorist and extremist groups. Country A is in fact the United States, and Country B is Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. has continued its alliance with Saudi Arabia in spite of Saudi funding of a large scale network of fundamentalist, anti-humanist Wahhabi schools and thought producers, and in spite of their funding of jihadi Sunni rebel groups, in the face of small and large-sale terrorist attacks on the U.S. directly, and on U.S. interests abroad. Far from resisting calls to quit or reduce the relationship with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. does not so much as act effectively to rein in or deter the Saudis from contributing to behavior that directly harms it.

Yet somehow, we hears expectations, hopes and wants – sometimes from policy groups or commentators, sometimes from the American government itself – for China, which perceives itself as gaining an advantage from its relationship with North Korea, to act against its own perceived interests and instead act to suit American interests (again, despite the fact the North Korea is not only not harming China, but actually giving them a positive return as they see it), and without offering anything major in return. And then they wonder why it doesn’t happen, and the situation doesn’t change, as if the U.S. does not do the same thing in other regions.

North Korea has pursued development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for the same reasons that every other country which possesses them did – they are the surest guarantee of safety against threats from other countries. The North Koreans are as unlikely to give up their permanent nuclear deterrent for temporary, minor economic concessions as anyone else would be, and particularly so given the inevitable turnover in the personnel and policy of the U.S. government, and the diametrically opposed political philosophies of the two countries.

North Korea thrives on antagonism and the presence of two such perpetual antagonists, the U.S. and South Korea, serves as a perpetual justification for the North Korean policies of mass mobilization (military and social) and the total control society which are so detrimental and impoverishing to those living there, and so abhorrent to those outside.

Effectively, if not usually acknowledged, the current U.S. policy is one of containment, or doing very little to attempt to change a situation where the U.S. possesses scant leverage. Certainly, efforts to expose and speak out against North Korea’s systematic abuse of the human rights of its citizens are a good thing. Although in this, private organizations can and do generally speak with less baggage, and are generally more effective both in speech and in person-to-person work than the U.S. Government (these NGOs not undermining their own credibility by simultaneously supporting regimes such as the House of Saud).

Banging one’s head against a wall can hardly constitute an effective policy, although given the substantial number of American politicians who would rather put on a John Wayne suit and spout on about their empty “toughness” than go out and actually try to construct an effect policy, there are worse alternatives. Attempting to make a deal with North Korea that benefits its general population without aiding and abetting its noxious government is very difficult given the extent to which its regime is constructed to prevent this and take maximum advantage to itself. Thinking that China is going to accomplish this end on the U.S.’s behalf is akin to whistling in the wind.

A good, very small start toward for the long-term goal of undermining the regime rather than pursuing a short-term goal of trying to talk them off nuclear weapons would be to make cultural exchanges between the two countries. All evidence and testimony indicates that the North Korean people are as interested in the outside world and its products and entertainments as any other people would be, and that they are commensurately eager to see and experience these (the lengths to which are gone to smuggle South Korean music, fashion, movies and television programs in to North Korea and the demand for them being the clearest example). Encouraging these tendencies by overt and covert means would benefit all sides, or least those who deserve it. No one could expect easy or quick results from such small actions, but if pursued over the long-term in small steps, they will put the U.S. in a better position to exploit opportunities to force a bigger change when these occur.