Change from within in North Korea and the Palestinian Territories

The winter issue of Foreign Affairs presents articles on two seemingly unsolvable problems, the Israel-Palestine conflict and North Korea. Both articles note the continuous failure of diplomatic efforts, and suggest that only internal grassroots change will bring positive change. I would like to take the bait provided by these articles and give my thoughts. The articles, named below, can be found here.

“The Opening of the North Korean Mind” by Jieun Baek

“How to Build Middle East Peace” by Moshe Yaalon


I’ll forego a lengthy summary of both article and move straight to the point that caught my attention. Suffice it to say that Baek’s article gives an interesting insight into the demand for foreign media in North Korea. There is an ever-growing black market for foreign media smuggled in by South Korean/defector NGOs and activists, and a fairly robust distribution network has developed. This infiltration of foreign sounds, images and ideas has great potential to drive grassroots change in the country. Indeed, North Korean youth are well-versed in black market media, and are more critical of the government than ever before.

Yaalon’s article describes the long and laborious diplomatic efforts at peace between Palestine and Israel, all of which have been futile. He is of the point of view that the conflict is unsolvable through diplomacy and territory concessions, because Palestine is fundamentally unwilling to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish democratic state. This is clear from the education of Palestinian children, and the media in the Territories that spreads anti-Israeli messages to the people. As long as this attitude toward Israel is unchanged, there is no possibility for the resolution of the conflict. The only solution is a longer term strategy aimed at building economic and social relation between Israel and Palestine in order to affect a change in sentiment among Palestinians.


The main point I want to address is that both call emphasize that change must occur internally, and that diplomacy has failed in the past, and therefore there is no reason for it to succeed in the future. Yaalon expresses this view throughout his essay. Baek touches on this briefly when she says :

“Traditional diplomacy and sanctions have failed to push Kim toward political and economic reform and away from saber rattling and defiance. For decades, some of the world’s most persistent and skilled negotiators have sought to engage, entice, and coerce him, his father, and his grandfather. But nothing has worked… If North Korea is going to change, it will have to come from within.”

Both article express exasperation at diplomatic efforts and confidence in their futility. When I read their views the word “defeatist” comes to mind, but I think that’s too harsh of a judgment. There is every reason to feel discouraged with the non-existent progress of diplomacy in both cases. It is only human nature to discard something that is pointless for something more effective. And actually, I agree that internal change is essential in both cases. This is especially so in the case of North Korea, as the government views any degree of external interference with hostility. In the case of Palestine, it is a matter of Palestinians inwardly promoting peaceful ways of thinking, but it is also a matter of increasing constructive economic, cultural and social exchange in order to push forward reconciliation and isolate extremist groups.

However, I disagree that diplomacy has no place in bringing about change. In both cases, there is a great opportunity for achieving top-down change. In the case of Palestine, I think Israel needs to increase political closeness as well as economic and cultural closeness. The Palestinian Authority needs to be continuously engaged with. This constant communication will be a show of good will and make incremental changes possible – incremental changes in the attitudes of the elite translate into society-wide changes in the general population. In Palestine, the engagement needs to be holistic and continuous as all levels of society. Israel should not just on achieving long-term solutions, but put effort into solutions in all time-frames: short-, medium-, and long-term.

In regards to North Korea, the case for continuous diplomacy is even greater. Firstly, continuously engaging North Korea as an equal at the highest level will reduce the risks posed by its unpredictability. Now that it has operational nuclear capabilities, reducing its unpredictability is more important than ever, and the best way to influence and understand the actions of North Korea’s elite is to engage in dialogue and cooperation. Secondly, constantly engaging in dialogue opens up the opportunity to exert a degree of influence over the elites. This influence will be tiny, but the fact is that having this tiny opportunity is far better than cutting off dialogue completely and having no opportunity. If successful, the fruits dialogue are potentially huge, given the absolute power the North Korean government holds over society. Affecting the stance/attitude of the government just a little could affect widespread change in society. Yes, the chance of affecting top-down social change through diplomacy and dialogue is slight. Yes, it is akin to playing the lottery. But I believe it is worth the price. Change in North Korea should be continuously approached at the grassroots and the upper echelons. There is nothing to gain, and possibly much to lose, from being diplomatically aloof.

In conclusion, while I agree with the strategy of grassroots change in the articles, I believe relying solely on this to bring about change is the wrong approach, and does nothing to make relations with North Korea and Palestine any smoother in the present. Indeed, remaining aloof from proactively engaging North Korea and Palestine as equals at the highest level communicates hostility on the part of the “liberal democratic” world and lets open wounds fester. Engagement must be holistic, occur at all levels of society, and, furthermore, be positive in nature. Use of force, combative rhetoric, and covert operations has only served to deepen distrust.



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