Yongusil 47: Tailored Engagement, a Stanford Solution

By | September 29, 2014 | No Comments

In recent weeks, Koreanists and those involved in North Korean studies have been presented with multiple possibilities, forums, structures and processes for North Korean engagement. From the hopeful, youthful and ambitious at Harvard University’s Student Conference on the DPRK, to the restless “Albtraum” in Leiden, conferences have offered an array of approaches. Sino-NK has been a central part of all these events, and the Yongusil has covered all shades of thought. The interested can virtually pick according to their pleasure. However, conventionally empirical, grounded evidence and careful consideration has been thin on the ground in places, and so it was, for this author at least, with some relief that the latest policy paper from the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) at Stanford University emerged.

Tailored Engagement – Toward an Effective and Sustainable Inter-Korean Relations Policy” is the product of a series of workshops held under the careful eye of the esteemed Professor Gi-Wook Shin (author of the landmark text on Korean nationalisms, “Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics and Legacy”), David Straub and Joyce Lee. Seeking to navigate the complex nexus of competing interests, fears and misconceptions that revolve around trans-Korean interaction, the authors provide a useful historical review and recounting of these competitions and interactions. Having done so, they outline an up-to-date and considered analysis of South Korean policies and approaches towards North Korea and North Korean engagement under President Park Geun-hye’s leadership.

Given the pressing external and internal foci of unification, denuclearization, sanctions and UN Commission for Inquiry-driven demands on “human rights” issues, such a summation is no easy task. Finally, the authors outline the need for what they term a South Korean “Perry Process” (a la Bill Perry during the Clinton administration) in which commitment on unification matters is ceded to an influential and capable individual of substance and intelligence, with whom responsibility for establishing a series of principles of engagement can rest.

“Tailored Engagement” is a well-structured, highly detailed, careful analysis of previous efforts, current projects and future possibilities, or certainly as careful and structured as one is likely to come across in these heated, furtive days. For this author, however, the relentless Liberal tone of the arguments reiterate nothing so much as the need to disconnect “engaging” North Korea (whatever ultimately that verb entails) from the domestic and international policy needs of the Republic of Korea. Perhaps we ought to ponder the utility of “unification” on the Korean peninsula as a goal or concept, and whether in fact the sublimation and negation of the North is really such a useful driver in this sort of exercise. Perhaps instead, growing the North both intellectually, developmentally, psychologically, ideologically at its own pace and in its own time, away from the rigors of the market, post-colonial global democratic malaise and the hypocrisies and contradictions of the “Responsibility to Protect” might be a better goal, more respectful of its sovereignty, more considerate of its communitas and habitus?

While “Tailored Engagement” gives useful analysis and a considered, authoritative tone, if ultimately its logical, articulate and reasonable principles for the engagement and connection of Pyongyang to the wider world are not to join the massed ranks of engagement’s false starts and false alarms; ideological disconnection and/or reconnection will be necessary. Ultimately perhaps the author of the report might, in the end, consider for whom this engagement is ultimately tailored.