Off-the-tracks diplomacy with North Korea

m62-602-v-chingchon-vuJang Jin-sung’s magisterial Dear Leader notices this about the North Korean railroad system: “In North Korea [… most] of the country relied on a single-track railway laid during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula during the first half of the twentieth century.”  As if the North Korean railroad system is not suffering from structural challenges as it is, Jang continues with the remark that “passenger trains must always give way to the ruling Kim’s special train, for which myriad routes were kept clear for security reasons, only for them to be changed at the last minute.” Operating an antiquated, single-track railroad system is difficult enough under normal circumstances, but when it falls prey to structural abuse from above, it becomes nigh impossible. Which is why the average North Korean citizen may spend days travelling a distance of only a few hundred kilometres, forced to yield the only railroad track available to the demands of a state that does not brook denial.

If the tracks of the railroad system are limited, congested and subject to arbitrary state-sanctioned abuse in North Korea, the tracks used for its diplomatic relations are even more dysfunctional. North Korean diplomacy itself, the DPRK’s representatives abroad, has attracted more attention on account of suspected illegal activities than through acts of diplomacy. The diplomatic overtures made from Pyongyang are either unrealistic peace proposals or strongly abusive rants. The Six Parties talks are an increasingly cold cadaver, still waiting for resuscitation – again. Track One diplomacy, then, or the formal contacts between states conducted by professional diplomats, has not been a particularly successful exercise with regard to North Korea. Despite the despair-inducing failures Track One diplomacy with North Korea has given rise to, states have no choice but to keep on trying. Diplomacy is supposed to work, even if disappointment is the expected outcome.

Hence the attraction of Track Two diplomacy: the efforts at reducing tension or solving conflicts by non-state actors. These efforts are aimed at improving communication and achieving a better understanding of one another, and should eventually lead to better relations, lesser tension or the ceasing of a conflict. North Korea has had more than its share of Track Two diplomacy projects, whether as humanitarian aid, cultural exchange, instruction seminars for middle management in the free market economy or developmental assistance. Such an approach has been successful in the past between Israel and the PLO, where it gradually phased into Track One diplomacy. This is a decentralized, non-governmental array of approaches that can bypass­­ – or on the contrary fruitfully discuss – sensitive issues, talk to persons formally inaccessible or travel to areas otherwise restricted. Other conflict areas now and in the future stand to benefit from Track Two diplomacy.

North Korea is not such an area. The reason for this is simple. While Track Two diplomacy must be carried out by non-state actors, this is impossible in North Korea, where the only non-state actors are in the prison camps. We are slowly finding out, after decades of dismally failed policy, that all actions of engagement by the DPRK are informed by explicitly formulated but intensely guarded internal policies and to a much lesser extent by the situation in the outside world. This means in concrete terms that North Korean non-state counterparts the outside world is wont to see as key figures capable of bringing about reforms, concessions or other forms of engagement, are in fact carefully managed bit players in an intricate script that has only one goal: the entrenchment and strengthening of the current regime.

We now know, or at least should know, that there is a tapestry of coordinated policies that underlie North Korean responses to Track Two initiatives in particular. Whether it’s humanitarian aid, conflict prevention efforts, professional training or business investments, DPRK counterparts are coordinated according to policies developed to maximize the state’s profit from these interactions (minus the inevitable portion lost to graft). Everyone who worked at a sufficiently high level with in the DPRK state apparatus and has since left it for exile abroad, confirms this. North Korea may well be the best adapted country in the world with regard to Track Two diplomacy, but in a rather unsuspected and brazenly cynical way.

Why don’t we see this? Perhaps we don’t really want to. I have certainly managed to not see it for a number of years. Only after talking to people who used to work in the DPRK state apparatus and reading their analyses, did I realize that I had entertained a set of fatal misconceptions regarding DPRK domestic bureaucracy and foreign diplomacy. The degree to which the DPRK state apparatus is capable to play into the illusions of well-meaning Western activists and scholars, while completely subverting their efforts, beggars belief. In particular, since a crucial DPRK institution such as the United Front Department, responsible for North Korea’s image abroad among other things, painstakingly prepares and executes operations aimed at obtaining profit (in goodwill, hard currency or goods) by morphing its representatives into whatever shape the foreign counterpart wishes or expects to see. The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF), to name a well-known example, has a habit of presenting itself as an NGO – and as such it is welcomed abroad to participate in talks between other, proper, NGOs. A recent disclosure of classified documents clearly demonstrated, however, that the CPRF is one of the bureaucratic branches operated by the UFD. Wither Track Two?

In North Korea, civilian trains traveling its sole railroad track always have to give way to trains carrying the ruling Kim. The regime is ever present, its interests accommodated by default. There is in effect but one track and that one belongs to the regime. North Korea’s railroad system shares a fundamental likeness with its diplomacy. Like the train tracks, in North Korean diplomacy Track Two belongs to the regime’s stakeholders much as Track One. The distinction between the two cannot be made in North Korea, but it continues to be made outside of it. The solution? All engagement with North Korea should be done with eyes wide open, whether Track One or nominally Track Two. And then for real effect, we should in more than one way take our cue from the North Korean people who constantly look for other means of transport when the train track is liable to be monopolized by the state. We, like them, should also leave the tracks, if it means walking, using a wood-fuelled car or an ox-cart. The diplomatic equivalent of this is off-the-tracks diplomacy, executed through non-state channels and via non-state actors. This has already been done for at least a decade by North Korean exiles – economically, information-wise and communication-wise at all levels of North Korean society, even if it is not as widely known in the English-language world as Track One or Two initiatives. For us also, it is time to leave the tracks behind us, for Tracks One and Two both lead to the same building in Pyongyang.

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