It would be madness not to reach out to North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

Last month I was in Burma. In the past I had entered the country illegally, but this time I had a visa. I was able to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi freely and speak at an open-air meeting of the National League for Democracy. I was able to meet members of the country’s ethnic minorities, some still at war with the regime. I was also able to travel freely and see the first signs of Burma’s political spring.

Eighteen months ago none of this would have been possible. My visit reminded me how quickly things can change and made me wonder whether there are lessons in Burma for another isolated, rogue state: North Korea.

There are considerable differences between the two countries – not least the absence of a Daw Suu – and in many respects North Korea is simply sui generis. But for decades both countries have been isolated from their neighbours. Both have been dominated by military cliques. Both have squandered natural resources while their command economies stagnate and their populations suffer. Both have had a contempt for democracy and human rights. Both have to live with a powerful neighbour: China.

In North Korea, nearly 60 years of austerity, failed self-reliance and famine have left its people suffering in unimaginable ways. There is malnutrition, hunger and even unverified reports of cannibalism.

But unexpected changes can occur quite rapidly. South of the Korean Demilitarised Zone there has also been dramatic change.

Kim Dae-jung, the Catholic opposition leader, who survived assassination attempts and spent six years in prison, saw off military dictatorship and became the country’s democratically elected president.

Now it is North Korea which stands at a crossroads.Will its leaders take the road leading to peace, prosperity and re-unification or will they continue with the near farcical but dangerous bellicosity which has taken the world to the brink of a new Korean war? Too often North Korea has been like the boy who cried wolf, with all the dangers and risks of miscalculation implied.

Specialising in diplomatic blackmail, it uses brinkmanship to remind the world that it’s still there. Its leadership uses missile movements and threats of war as a distraction from the internal challenges it faces. This is replete with dangers and is accompanied by a power struggle involving the young Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Sung-Taek, and his aunt, Kim Kyong-Hui (now a four-star general).

By creating a crisis with the world beyond its borders North Korea is attempting to intensify the country’s siege mentality and to unite it behind the Kim family. It also wants to show its disdain for the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2094, supported by Russia and, even more tellingly, by China.

China’s new president, Xi Jin Ping, has said: “No country should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.”

But last month China simultaneously doubled her oil exports to North Korea. If Xi is serious about his “China Dream” he will need to match words with actions and might begin by opening China’s 800-mile border, letting refugees cross freely instead of being shot dead as they try to wade the RiverYalu or River Tumen. I have been in North Korea four times.

At Panmunjom, where, in 1953, the now suspendedArmistice was signed after the deaths of three million people, I wrote: “It’s better for men to build bridges than to build walls.”Walls require less creative genius and little engineering skill. Bridges, by contrast, are more complex – though they do have the disadvantage of being walked over. The international community should discount that disadvantage and begin a process of critical engagement, with the objective of a peace conference that finally ends the war.

Dialogue and engagement should not be an excuse for appeasement or for timidity in speaking truthfully about the nature of the regime, its ideology and its policies.We who share a common belief in human rights, human dignity and freedom must be fearless in confronting brutality and ruthlessness.

But the on-off policies of the past 60 years, designed to counter North Korean belligerence, have been based on the same “military first” ideology as the policies practised in North Korea.

For both sides, it has largely been a case of military first, second and third. In this Korean version of the ColdWar the acronymMAD –MutuallyAssuredDestruction – seems peculiarly appropriate. Amilitary conflict between the North and South would simply lead to colossal loss of (overwhelmingly Korean) life.

To avert such scenarios we will need a more reasoned and nuanced approach than MAD. Such a strategy would – as the Helsinki Process did in the 1980s – take as its starting point the assumption that force will always be met by force, but with both sides categorically eschewing territorial ambitions and renouncing the use of military firepower to secure such ambitions.

The simultaneous objective would be a calibrated peace process to achieve, in the long term, the complete de-nuclearisation of the peninsula and the reunification of Korea.

The West miscalculates when it assumes that North Korea’s leadership can be induced to commit political suicide. It also miscalculates when it assumes that the accoutrements of capitalism – from fashion wear to decent cars, to South Korean music tapes and DVDs – will be enough, by themselves, to assuage the cultivated fear of the world beyond its borders.

As North Korea stands at the crossroads, it must take the same small steps which Burma has taken.What is needed now is a painstaking and patient bridge-building strategy, one which cajoles and coaxes, but does not appease.

Lord Alton of Liverpool is chairman of the All Party Group on North Korea. His book, Building Bridges: Is There Hope for North Korea?, co-authored with Rob Chidley and published by Lion, is published next month and may be ordered in advance from Amazon

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 19/4/13