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World leaders shouldn’t let Rodman monopolize N. Korea engagement

Nile Bowie is a political analyst and photographer currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached on Twitter or at nilebowie@gmail.com

Published time: January 14, 2014 12:19
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) chating with former US basketball star Dennis Rodman (L) at Pyongyang Gymnasium in Pyongyang.(AFP Photo / KCNA)

As tension mounts on the Korean Peninsula ahead of annual joint US-South Korea military exercises that routinely generate condemnation from Pyongyang, it’s clear that high-level engagement from someone other than Dennis Rodman is sorely needed.

The bizarre friendship between former the NBA star and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been the subject of intense ridicule and debate following Rodman’s latest visit to Pyongyang. To mark the birthday of Kim Jong-un, Rodman organized a basketball match between retired NBA veterans and North Korean players, with the home side emerging as victors. The famously flamboyant Rodman was ridiculed for singing, “Happy Birthday” to Kim, but more so for his disastrous live interview with CNN, where the former slam-dunker struggled for coherency in a drunken stupor. Rodman issued an explanation for the interview shortly after claiming that he had too much to drink, and apologized for making insensitive statements about Kenneth Bae, the American evangelical activist arrested by North Korean authorities while on a trip as a tourist in 2012 over accusations that he incited citizens to overthrow the government in Pyongyang.

Rodman was deeply criticized for not doing enough to promote the plight of Bae, and for traveling to the country so shortly after the high-profile purge of Kim Jong-un’s uncle-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, who handled much of Pyongyang’s economic affairs and its trade relations with China.

Rodman has always been frank toward the media about how his trips to Pyongyang have no political objectives, but the less-apparent benefits of his “basketball diplomacy” tour are often lost on Western commentators.

North Korean citizens’ view of the world outside their borders has been shaped entirely by state media, which rarely reports on international news unless it plays into Pyongyang’s narrative. Rodman’s presence offers a genuinely rare state-backed cultural exchange with the United States that appeals to citizens of all age demographics, which can contribute to the softening of peoples’ opinions of Americans and Westerners that have otherwise been formed by highly potent anti-American themes prevalent in official propaganda.

Furthermore, the sight of an eccentric foreigner being embraced by the leadership may engender North Koreans to adopt a mildly positive view of the outside world with greater curiosity toward it. Despite Rodman’s public relations hiccups, the former athlete has done more to win the hearts of minds of average North Koreans than the Obama administration can ever hope to.

B-52s don’t do slam-dunks

Rodman’s ‘basketball diplomacy’ trips do not have the backing of the Obama administration, so it is unlikely that such exchanges can generate a political effect comparable to the “ping-pong diplomacy” of the 1970s between the US and China.

The Obama administration’s policy toward Pyongyang is one of so-called “strategic patience” that demands North Korea state its commitment to complete denuclearization as a precondition for any dialogue. Washington and Seoul have paid no heed to Pyongyang’s repeated calls to establish a peace treaty that formally ends the Korean War, and in the absence of diplomatic pragmatism that would give space to engagement, Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities and missile delivery systems are becoming more sophisticated. Rodman’s position as Washington’s most critical diplomatic conduit to Pyongyang is a partially a result of thickheaded policy lines taken by conservative administrations in the US and South Korea that have proven to be impediments to dialogue and reconciliation by elbowing Pyongyang into a confrontational stance.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) chating with former US basketball star Dennis Rodman (L) at Pyongyang Gymnasium in Pyongyang.(AFP Photo / KCNA)

The Foal Eagle joint exercises conducted between the US and South Korea is one of the world’s largest annual military drills that focus on amphibious landing operations with extensive maritime, air, and ground maneuvers. During the 2013 drills, the US Air Force used B-52 strategic bombers for the first time, which are capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang viewed these measures as hugely provocative, essentially a dress rehearsal for the nuclear bombing and invasion of their country, and the international media rarely takes its stance into objective consideration. Rather than creating conditions for North Korea to integrate into East Asia at its own pace, such needlessly confrontation displays legitimize Pyongyang’s official rhetoric and allow it to maintain a siege-mentality. Pyongyang recently opposed efforts to organize family reunions with Seoul for families separated by the Korean War in protest over the joint exercises, and similarly rescinded an invitation to discuss Kenneth Bae’s situation to US human rights envoy Robert King specifically to protest the use of B-52 bombers in last year’s exercises.

Preconditions & preemptive strikes

Kim Jong-un’s recent New Year’s address emphasized constructive economic development and directly called for improved relations with South Korea. The response from Seoul was lukewarm, as President Park Geun-hye spoke of creating an atmosphere for peaceful reunification in highly vague terms, saying that Pyongyang should first show its sincere attitude toward the denuclearization as a precondition before entering the dialogue phase. In other words, Park Geun-hye’s failure to send a positive response to Kim’s reconciliatory gesture signifies her administration’s commitment to the highly volatile status quo, which results in guaranteed backing of her government by the US military. Washington also stands to gain secondary benefits from the status quo by playing up the “North Korean threat” to justify boosting its military presence in the region, in addition to brokering lucrative defense deals with its regional allies. Washington and Seoul’s preference for the status quo is clear in its insistence on unrealistic preconditions that North Koreans find humiliating and against their legitimate national security interests.

Two senior American diplomats penned a column in The New York Times last year after several unofficial meetings with senior North Korean officials, who offered to consider a phased approach to denuclearization in exchange for a peace treaty with the US and South Korea and the lifting of economic sanctions. The authors alluded to how the Obama administration’s position on preconditions-for-talks has become counterproductive, stating, “Whatever risks might be associated with new talks, they are less than those that come with doing nothing.” Despite the opportunity for talks, the only efforts taken by Washington and Seoul have been to further entrench security policies that infuriate Pyongyang and force it into an aggressive posture. South Korea’s Defense Ministry approved a preemptive strike doctrine last year that allows Seoul to employ conventional strikes, missile defense capabilities and the American nuclear umbrella for preemptive strikes on North Korea, while the US Air Force announced that it would begin flying surveillance drones near North Korea’s borders to gather intelligence data.

U.S. President Barack Obama visits U.S. military personnel stationed at Observation Post Ouellette along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which borders North and South Korea, outside Seoul, March 25, 2012.(Reuters / Larry Downing)

Direct engagement with Kim Jong-un

Seoul and Washington’s policies have not yielded any tangible benefits and serve to weaken the likelihood of the six-party talks commencing. Contrary to the doom-and-gloom forecasts of most analysts following the purge of Jang Song-thaek, the political situation in Pyongyang has proved to be rather stable and there is little technical evidence to show that Pyongyang is preparing for another imminent nuclear test or provocation.

Since coming to power in 2011, Kim Jong-un has maintained social stability and has worked to gradually improve living standards through increased emphasis on economic, cultural and social development, with a focus on improving the conditions of women and children. He has also carried forward a handful of politically and strategically significant changes, including reforms of the agricultural sector, that involve reducing collective farm sizes and allowing farmers to hold on to output beyond their production quotas.

Efforts are also being made to decentralize economic decision-making in provinces and enterprises, including measures to allow enterprise managers to retain a surplus and form joint ventures with registered investors. There are indications that Pyongyang is also making greater efforts to ease market access to its special economic zones. Kim has overseen something of a construction boom in various parts of the country, and there is a level of economic well-being emerging that has not been seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. A keen sense of perspective is needed when dealing with North Korea, and as economic reform gains momentum, all parties should encourage legitimate economic exchange as a basis for reconciliation. Chinese state-media recently called for Kim Jong-un to visit Beijing to promote bilateral friendly ties, a visit which is expected to take place this year.

The most effect way for North Korea’s issues to be addressed is through Beijing and also Moscow taking the initiative to pursue high-level engagement directly with Kim Jong-un to get a greater sense of the young leader’s objectives and priorities, and the domestic political situation.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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