Tackling the hermit kingdom: How do you deal with North Korea?

13 Apr 2013

It seems now like a lifetime ago, but there was hope that the passing of power in North Korea from Kim Jong Il to the young Kim Jong Un could be a opportunity for new relations with the isolated nation. However, history teaches us that things are rarely that simple. Whether motivated by fear of surrounding enemies, or the desire of the boy-King to show old generals what he’s made of, under Un the country has ramped up its nuclear programme, culminating in the nuclear test earlier this year, its third since 2006. This heralded fresh UN sanctions, triggering the cycle now seen of threats and counter-threats. North Korea is now officially in a ‘state of war’ with its Southern neighbours, it has reopened a decommissioned nuclear reactor in Yongbyon and in barring South Koreans from the two nations’ joint industrial project, has cut these nations’ last formal connections.


Such provocative action is undesirable, but can it be tackled?  Condemnation alone clearly won’t work and the nation’s tight control on information means internal change remains unlikely. The lack of progress through the six-party talks means sanctions have been increasingly supported, but are they effective?  North Korea is a country of another decade, playing a minor part in the global economy and global society as a whole. This means the West has insufficient leverage for sanctions to be effective. Worse than this, the sanctions have been counter-productive, for the North sees them only as further proof of the threats facing the regime and its need to survive, a threat they feel is best managed through nuclear deterrence. It for this reason that talk of war has surfaced. Previously, tension would be unlikely to spill over, but the fear this time is due to Un. While undoubtedly erratic, Kim Jong Il’s actions did at least seem strategic, with a particular goal usually in mind. Kim Jon Un however seems bereft of such goals, highly unpredictable and relatively inexperienced. For such a novice, it is a dangerous game he plays. 

But war benefits no one, certainly not North Korea. It’s vastly inferior militarily compared to the US’s technological war machine and they have few allies prepared to fight for them, with even their great defender China now growing frustrated at the attitude of their rowdy neighbour. War would help no one else either, for no one knows the capability of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and their one million plus standing army means involvement would be long and bloody. Nobody wants that. This is why their rhetoric feels like bluster rather than a real war cry, designed only to keep the North’s enemies at bay, thereby preserving the regime, the only real goal of the North’s rulers. Yet while full out war seems unlikely, the current standoff is still undesirable. For one thing, skirmishes, particularly along dispute areas of the North-South border, do remain a distinct possibility. In 2010, North Korea shelled South Korean islands and is claimed to have torpedoed a South Korean submarine, actions it could well repeat.

Consequently, there is a need to defuse tension and prevent further escalation, but how to achieve this? The problem for the US and others is that they mostly lack both leverage and any understanding of the regime’s mindset. This is where China can come into play. Beijing insists their influence over Pyongyang is over exaggerated in the West, and this may be true. But it is also the case that it is their trade that keeps the nation functioning, meaning they have more economic influence then pretty much anyone else, giving them the sort of leverage that improves the chances of successful diplomacy. This in turn could pave the way for more communication between North Korea and nations in the outside world, making it easier for other nations to understand their perspective and motives better. So far, China has been reluctant to do this. The influence of conservative Confucian values in Chinese society coupled with a history of unwanted intervention in their territory has helped China adopt an approach opposing international intervention. Strategically, they also fear imposing economic restrictions that could collapse the regime, throwing the region into chaos. Yet that could also happen if they continue to let the North shrug off its insecurities with grandiose gestures.

It is this argument the US and others must make to China, who alone can take the lead in calming North Korea’s paranoia, convincing them there will be no pre-emptive strikes and that their provocative actions are unjustified. With China’s staunch defence of North Korea beginning to wane of late, the time is ripe for this. The joint announcement made by the G8 is a move in the right direction, but it is communication not only at this level that is needed, but also between those nations and North Korea- China could be a key mediator in this. This alone won’t prevent tension on the Korean peninsula. The insecurity between the communist North and the democratic South is a Cold War relic that can only stop with an end to the Kim dynasty. But until that time, tough diplomacy is needed to bring things down to a level where each side understands each other better and where there is less insecurity on both sides. This is the key, for that emotion is the driver of irrational responses, the consequence of which could be devastating.

By Daniel Kibble

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