Every so often two ideas will come to fruition simultaneously. The ice cubes melt into one another, refreeze, and a new and more imposing linkage is set.
In the last two days, two essays, ostensibly unrelated, were published about engaging North Korea. The first was by the stalwart Andrei Lankov in the New York Times:
Combining engagement, information dissemination and support for [North Korean] émigrés is the only way to promote change. This approach, however, might be a hard sell to most Americans. It is likely to bring about only incremental change — at least until the situation reaches a breaking point, which could be years away.
But Americans should recognize that there are no quick fixes. For two decades, Washington has searched for solutions, sometimes by way of concessions, sometimes by way of threats. Both approaches have failed and — given the goals of the North Korean regime — would fail again and again. Only low-profile and persistent efforts aimed at promoting change from within will make a difference.
Finally! Someone credible, and other than Selig Harrison, who argues for the slow and steady course of gradual change toward the North. And bases it on cultural, where, make no mistake, progress can and has been made. Indeed, there are few things I enjoy more than “normalizing” my own relations with various North Koreans, particularly those who admit they view me as an imperialist at first. These usually revolve around a conversation about a book, or a piece of art, or a North Korean publication. Few things are more worthwhile, even if there is virtually no machinery in place (quite unlike the US-China rapprochement of the 1970s) wherein Americans can meet North Koreans. You have to do it yourself.
What are you doing to normalize relations with North Korea? To encourage them to be more normal? To become a bit abnormal yourself while encouraging normalization? Maybe our collective commitment to le droit de l’homme/human rights renders all of this impossible. But then again, if you’re an American and you really objected to government detention of Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay, you wouldn’t pay taxes, either. Better to take the principle that change is needed, and that interactions drive change. North Korea has no Zhou Enlai who is going to push for people-to-people relations, proclaiming a “People’s Diplomacy” (renmin waijiao), but that doesn’t mean they are wholly opposed to doing more cultural exchanges.
In fact, as long as their performers, waitresses, students or scientists can return home a few pounds heavier and with a few gifts, history indicates the North Koreans are more than willing to send delegations out. In a few months’ time I hope to have an article out on this topic, based on materials on DPRK-GDR cultural exchanges from the East German archives in Berlin. “An Dankbarkeit: On Thankfulness,” wrote the North Koreans to a little East German bezirk, and I think they genuinely meant it.
So here we might ask: when does the North Korean orchestra visit New York in reciprocation to the Philharmonic visit to Pyongyang in February 2008? Or are we so bedazzled by Chinese pyrotechnics and wowed by China’s brash soft power that we are unable to marshal a soft power offensive of our own? Don’t we need to get more exchanges with North Korea going in the way described by California prof Nancy Guy in her book on Peking Opera as political weapon? Master classes for North Korean cellists in New York, Mr. Obama!
And so, softened up by Lankov’s lances, I was vulnerable to a seismic excitement when I found this essay by Peter Hayes, published on October 12 in Japan Focus about North Korea’s environmental woes. Hayes knows what of he speaks:
In 1994, I led a UN mission charged with helping North Korea to compile its first greenhouse gas emissions inventory for its national report under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which North Korea had signed. Part of the justification for providing Global Environment Facility (GEF) funding for greenhouse gas reduction projects in North Korea was the creation of other benefits such as biodiversity. For this reason, I was looking into reforestation in North Korea as a way to capture carbon from the air as a way to preserve and restore biodiversity.
I was talking over dinner with the head of North Korea’s biodiversity program about such a project. He offered to pour me a shot of liquor from a bottle containing a snake. I demurred but he insisted, saying the snake liquor for public sale was low grade whereas this one — a snake with a diamond head not a square one — was the real thing, made from a rare and endangered species!
Hayes notes, however, that his experience was largely positive and productive in dealing with cooperative North Korean environmental officials in helping to stop deforestation and pollution in the DPRK. Unfortunately international funding for a project endorsed by the North was killed by the (now thankfully dead) Senator Jesse Helms. Since I did some earlier writing on the need for more non-military, or Track II, exchanges with North Korea on the environmental front, I was very very gratified to find Gries’ essay, become aware of his formidable expertise, and read his conclusions:
There are many other critical environmental issues in North Korea. The country, it turns out, is still producing globally significant amounts of persistent organic pollutants such as DDT (about 230 tonnes per year) and similar pesticides that accumulate in food chains and ecosystems thousands of miles downwind.3 Disposal of toxic wastes, work-place occupational health and safety, acid rain, greenhouse gas emissions and many other environmental issues must be solved in North Korea.
The results of these efforts will be a long-term legacy that will be inherited by a future generation of Koreans. They will have to preserve what’s left of wild North Korea; conserve what’s in use; and restore what has been abused. The continued isolation of North Korea has led to a rapid degradation of the ecological assets that existed at the end of the Cold War, and it is certain that the fastest way to destroy what’s left of North Korea’s ecology would be war.
Many of these ecological issues are technical and apolitical, and even at the height of international tensions due to the nuclear issue, North Korea’s leadership has kept them separate and accepted external engagement and assistance. Should a way forward emerge at the geopolitical level to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, many environmental issues will become channels for cooperative engagement between North Korea and external agencies.
Perhaps the ultimate ecological agenda will be realization of a vision for the future of the Demilitarized Zone, with a coalition of South Korean and international agencies arguing that a “peace park” should culminate in a set of biodiversity corridors that stretch from North Korea’s borders with China and Russia to the north, to the tip of Jeju Island in the South.
Isn’t this the kind of innovative thinking we were hoping the Obama administration would marshal with ye olde Axis of Evil? Perhaps the Clinton State Department needs a little nudge.