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Politics

North Korea -- latest missile test calls for new approach

US and allies must offer peace treaty and economic development in return for end to nuclear program

United Nations Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, left, meets with North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in Pyongyang on Dec. 7.   © KCNA/Reuters

As tensions mount over North Korea in the wake of its ICBM launch, there appears to be increasing effort to seek a non-military solution. The United Nations has sent its political affairs chief, Jeffrey Feltman, to Pyongyang in order to find ways to reduce tensions in the region.

Meanwhile, Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has announced that in early 2018 she and U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson will co-host a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss North Korea. As long as Tillerson can retain his position in Foggy Bottom, we are likely to see announcements of a time and place in the coming weeks.

Both the Feltman visit and the conference plan are welcome news. This is a good time for new discussions on this complex and challenging issue. In launching the ICBM, Kim Jong Un announced that North Korea had "finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force." Experts have different interpretations of this message: Some see it as a signal that the current wave of missile tests has ended, and others see it more as an indication that North Korea sees itself in a position of sufficient strength to engage in dialogue. As Feltman is the most senior U.N. official to visit Pyongyang since 2012, his presence does not just signal the seriousness with which the U.N. views this situation, but also should be seen a sign that there is an opportunity, however limited, for some constructive dialogue.

Fresh thinking is desperately needed on the North Korea issue if any progress is to be made. Neither isolation nor sanctions have changed the situation in North Korea, reduced its nuclear capacity or prevented provocative and increasingly dangerous actions.

If the key players in the Korean peninsula issue, particularly the U.S., are serious about bringing an end to the cycle of instability that has dominated the peninsula for decades, then they will need a pragmatic, new approach. As a starting point, the key participants in the Korean War could agree to sit down and finalize a peace agreement, bringing a formal end to this conflict from the early 1950s.

This would have several advantages. It would bring senior officials from the U.S. and North Korea, as well as South Korea and China, into the same room to discuss peace on the peninsula. It would also signal a willingness to make a new start and break with the patterns of the past. And it would formally eliminate one of North Korea's excuses for maintaining the country on a war footing.

Foreign ministers should also develop and support a plan, led jointly by the U.S. and China, that includes both the comprehensive elimination of nuclear weapons in North Korea and an ambitious plan for economic development, including investment. It was economic development and investment, particularly the acceptance of market mechanisms, that led China out of the isolation, instability and poverty of the Cultural Revolution period. China's role is crucial here, particularly that of its state-owned enterprises, who could form partnerships with other foreign companies to develop North Korea's rich natural resources. A long-term approach is necessary -- profits will not be immediate, and the lack of a system of commercial law, and of rule of law for that matter, make investment difficult. Here the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank could also play a constructive role. Increased trade with the country could be crucial in kick-starting a transformation and moving it toward integration in the global community. Kim Jong Un has allowed modest, market-based economic reforms along the lines of those introduced in China by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. Whatever his rhetoric, Kim recognizes that market economies have been successful across Asia.

Critical juncture

Linking economic development -- not just aid -- to progressive, verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons, starting with a freeze on missile testing, and within the context of a new peace agreement, could establish new incentives and parameters for stronger engagement between North Korea and the outside world.

Finally, part of this package would be the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea, with immediate bilateral senior level contacts to develop a work plan for advancing relations.

All this will take political courage, especially on the part of the U.S., where a hostile position has become increasingly entrenched. Trump has, in the past, expressed a willingness to meet Kim, although he has since backtracked from this statement. This is one instance where his initial political instincts were correct.

Critics will argue this suggested approach amounts to rewarding Kim for bad behavior. To a certain extent, this is correct, but it is not the first time this has happened. The same could have been said of Nixon's visit to China. Finding a way forward, and obtaining North Korean cooperation, will not be easy, and North Korea will have a lot to prove if it is to be accepted as a reliable interlocutor. But the West has to choose between dogmatism and pragmatism if it wants to help bring about regional stability. Kim, and his father before him, have been trying to get the attention and respect of the West for years. Ignoring this goal has in part led us to where we are now.

We are at a crucial juncture on the Korean Peninsula. We can continue with the same old policies -- more sanctions, threats of military action -- but at best they will lead nowhere, and at worst they will lead to conflict in a highly unstable region. We need a new approach to bring about new stability to Northeast Asia. The risks to everyone are too high to let ideology and entrenched positions get in the way of a lasting peace.

Philip Calvert is a senior fellow at the China Institute at the University of Alberta and served as Canada's ambassador to Thailand from 2012 to 2016.

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