North Korea’s Sunshine Policy

North Korea’s recent rocket launch received few congratulations and many condemnations, including the recent UN censure. Although Pyongyang did not manage to put a satellite into orbit, it did succeed in getting the world’s attention. It has sustained this attention by kicking out nuclear inspectors, vowing to restart its plutonium processing program, and declaring an end to its participation in the six-party talks.

So, after this one-two punch, what should North Korea do for a finale?

Here’s my counterintuitive advice: Pyongyang can extend its 15 minutes of international attention by following its demonstration of power with a show of diplomacy. North Korea should revive its charm offensive from 2000, when Jo Myong-rok visited Washington and Kim Jong-il received Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang. It should adopt a sunshine policy of its own toward the United States, Japan and South Korea.

The Obama administration, though only now beginning to review its North Korea policy, is open to negotiations. Stephen Bosworth, special envoy to North Korea, is willing to travel to Pyongyang for talks. It’s worth taking him up on the offer.

South Korean leader Lee Myung-bak has presided over a downturn in inter-Korean relations. It’s not an irrevocable shift. The Gaeseong industrial complex is still functioning. But more South Korean factories might follow the lead of the semiconductor business that just relocated from Gaeseong to the south. Or, like Abco Electronics or Misung Polytech, they might change their minds about opening factories in Gaeseong in the first place. By sending out the right signals, North Korea can find common ground with South Korea on economic deals that are mutually beneficial. Lee is more hard-nosed than hard-line: North Korean leaders just have to get down to business with him.

Japan is the hardest nut to crack. The abduction question has distorted Japanese foreign policy and made progress at the six-party talks, much less normalization of relations, quite difficult. The smart move for Pyongyang is to go back to its more flexible position from 2007 when it expressed a willingness to reopen its investigation into the abduction cases. By doing so, North Korea can drive a wedge between the uncompromising right-wing in Japan and the more moderate politicians.

North Korea often bridled at the term “sunshine policy” — used to describe Kim Dae-jung’s Nobel-Prize winning foreign policy — since it suggested that Seoul was the benevolent actor and Pyongyang the stubborn one. Now is the time for North Korea to try out a sunshine policy of its own. By reaching out the hand of diplomacy, in an action-for-action way, Pyongyang can take the high ground and also play a more decisive role in regional politics.

Pyongyang might object: when it was conciliatory in the past, it only met with disappointment. In 2000, North Korea feted Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang and offered to negotiate an end to its missile program, only to meet the cold shoulder from the incoming Bush administration in 2001. In 2002, Kim Jong-Il apologized for North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of clearing away an obstacle, the revelation led to a surge in anti-North Korean sentiment and a virtual suspension of bilateral relations.

This time is different. Pyongyang would be reaching out to an administration in Washington with four years (and perhaps more) ahead of it, an administration that prides itself on openness to dialogue. South Korea’s conservative president has the ability to make economic engagement with the North a truly bipartisan effort. And in Japan, removing the anti-North Korea card from the Liberal Democratic Party’s deck of options might help usher in a new ruling party and a more flexible foreign policy.

North Korea should act now, rather than wait. Washington is preoccupied with many other pressing issues, from the global economy to the war in Afghanistan. Tokyo and Seoul have their own economic woes to address. As their support of the latest U.N. statement condemning the rocket launch suggests, Beijing and Moscow are frustrated with the current trajectory of Pyongyang’s policy. Finally, there are no signs that the North Korean economy will somehow rise from the ashes all by itself.

North Korea needs a game changer, and soon. If Pyongyang implements a new sunshine policy, it can reenergize the six-party talks, negotiate a better deal for its nuclear program, and rebuild its economy. A North Korean sunshine policy probably won’t net Kim Jong-il a Nobel Peace Prize. But it would secure him and his people far more tangible rewards than rocket launches and nuclear tests.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.