Panel debates North Korea policy at Elliott School event

Updated: August 29, 2017 at 1:18 p.m.

About 100 students and staff members gathered in the Elliott School of International Affairs Monday for a panel discussion focused on how to quell tensions between the United States and North Korea weeks after the two countries traded threats of war.

The event, hosted by the GW Institute for Korean Studies – part of the Elliott School – featured professors from GW and Georgetown University discussing how best to contain North Korea’s nuclear program while also preventing relations from further deteriorating with the United States. Jisoo Kim, the institute’s director, moderated the event.

Too busy with the first day of classes to attend the discussion? Here are some of the highlights:

1. Diplomacy vs. military action

All panelists agreed that diplomacy was a better alternative to the use of force by the U.S military, but they consistently disagreed about which method would best reduce tensions in the region.

Robert Gallucci, the former dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said the options for how to deal with the North Korean government have usually come down to either containment, negotiation or some form of military action.

“Analytically, the Korean situation hasn’t changed since 1993,” Gallucci said, “The panel is supposed to talk about options for the future and analytically it seems to me that there are and always have been these three options.”

Other panelists doubted the efficacy of current containment programs, including harsh sanctions that some panelists said had worsened the relationship between the United States and North Korea. Experts at the event said it was unclear whether the long-running sanctions have been effective.

“As much as we dislike North Korea’s political leadership, if you could say one thing it’s that the country has been resilient,” Gregg Brazinsky, an associate professor of history and international affairs, said. “It survived being abandoned by its communist allies and numerous famines over many years. If we increase sanctions, North Koreans will do what they have always done: tighten their belts and continue to develop nuclear weapons programs.”

2. The North Korean mindset

Panelists said a feeling of paranoia among high-level officials in North Korea had also hampered diplomatic efforts.

“North Koreans seem to think there has been a gun pointed to their heads for the last 70 years,” Brazinsky said.

Amitai Etzioni, a professor of international affairs, said the distrust of the United States from the North Korean people is partially a result of the U.S. government’s interest in regime change and movement toward democracy in the region.

“The U.S. has said that as a precondition for the negotiation, the head of state has to go,” Etzioni said. That’s not a very good way to start negotiations. What we have shown in the past is that we don’t only want to stop their nuclear weapons, but also to try and turn them into a democracy.”

3. Nuclear capabilities

Gallucci said curbing North Korea’s threatening rhetoric toward the United States was of paramount importance, coming even before humanitarian concerns.

“North Koreans think it’s bizarre that negotiations with us consist of wanting them to give up their nuclear weapons. I think officials in Washington would be thrilled to let the North Koreans stew in their atrocious human rights policy if they didn’t threaten us with nuclear weapons,” he said.

Earlier this month following several successful North Korean missile launches, President Donald Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if the country continued threatening the United States.

Gallucci said talks to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program would only be more effective if North Korea showed greater concern for the wellbeing of its citizens.

“I think the key, oddly enough, is human rights,” he said. “If the North Korean human rights situation was not what it is, I think normalization would be easily manageable.”

Experts said another concern was the toll war with North Korea would have on the global economy. Brazinsky said the military situation is complicated by the fact that North Korea lies in close proximity to South Korea’s capitol, Seoul, a city home to nearly 10 million people.

“A unilateral effort to disarm North Korea is not wise. We all know what the consequences would be,” he said. “Unfortunately Seoul is within 30 miles of the DMZ and within easy striking range by the North Korean military. Given that South Korea has the 11th largest economy in the world, I think this would have horrific ramifications for the worldwide economy and cause a great humanitarian crisis.”

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