TOPICS: What North Korea really wants

In late 2004, I stood at the edge of the Sahara Desert and marvelled at a scene that would have been impossible to imagine a short time before. Near the ancient trading post of Al Kufrah, where Libya’s asphalt roads surrender to sand, a convoy of 350 trucks headed off into the desert on its way to refugee camps in Chad. These Libyan trucks were piled high with bags that carried the stamp “U.S.A.” and contained two months of American-grown food for 200,000 refugees from Darfur.

In three decades as a US congressman, ambassador, and now as a humanitarian activist, I have travelled to more than 100 countries, many of them places of hunger, poverty, warfare, or oppression. I have met some of the world’s worst despots and witnessed the horror they can create. I also have, as in Libya, witnessed good deeds done by those who are best known for wickedness. I have learned from these experiences that we should persist in our efforts to help the poor and liberate the oppressed. We should also be ready to engage our enemies, give them opportunities to do good and maybe some day convert them into friends.

The pressure of UN sanctions finally helped lead Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, an international pariah, to seek a new relationship with the civilised world. One fruit of subsequent engagement with him was obtaining a better route for shipping relief supplies to Darfur’s starving refugees. The US is missing the opportunity to directly engage North Korea in a similar process. I’ve concluded this because I was able to make six visits to the “Hermit Kingdom” while I was a member of Congress, travelling throughout that troubled country with surprising freedom. I saw the horrors of a dysfunctional economy, an unproductive agriculture, and an oppressive totalitarian political system. I saw people eating grass, doctors performing surgery without anaesthetics, children so growth-stunted that 18-year-olds appeared to be 9. I saw people taught to fear an evil America by news media and schools devoted to propaganda. I also saw people carrying bags, emblazoned with the US flag, in which they had received food aid.

On my last visit, in late 2000, I met high-ranking North Korean officials — but not supreme “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il — who begged me to help them come to terms with the US. Despite their bravado, North Korea’s rulers understand their country’s dire straits. They want more help from the West, particularly from the US. Above all, they want the respect and security that they believe would spring from a lasting bilateral relationship with the US, not from the six-party talks. They’re crying for attention, and the only way they know to command it is to rattle their nuclear bombs.

If the United States granted that attention through direct, serious, comprehensive talks with Pyongyang without preconditions, it would have the potential of putting North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programme back in the freezer. And it might begin to pull the Hermit Kingdom into the community of civilised nations. —The Christian Science Monitor