Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 16:18 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 16:18 | SYDNEY

North Korea: Bad news from Beijing


Rory Medcalf


26 May 2009 17:17

North Korean security scholars were invited to join a meeting of experts in Beijing a few days ago to help an international commission understand North Asian thinking on nuclear arms control. Now perhaps we know why they didn’t show up.

How to solve a problem like North Korea was one of the big issues for this round of regional consultations of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), sponsored by the Australian and Japanese governments, and in which I participated. The talks were under the Chatham House Rule, so I need to be careful about reporting who said what. But here are a few (depressing) impressions.

Most Chinese experts like to cast the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as primarily neither China’s problem nor its responsibility. This is deeply disappointing from the country that has the most influence over Pyongyang: it is the main source of its energy imports, and in theory at least a treaty-bound security partner.

The common Chinese refrain is that Beijing has already played its part in convening the Six Party Talks; that North Korea will eventually return to that table; and that the main fault is on the part of the US for not talking directly with North Korea or offering it security assurances up front. 

The Japanese, for their part, feel genuinely threatened by North Korea, more so than do the South Koreans. Pyongyang has hundreds of missiles which can reach Japanese territory, and is believed to have chemical and biological weapons, not to mention the nuclear program. Moreover, the shadow of a decades-old kidnapping campaign still darkens Tokyo’s thinking on all matters to do with the DPRK.

The South Korean policy community, like the South’s general population, is deeply divided on how to perceive or manage the North: those on the Left (sorry Mr Editor, here I go again with outmoded labels) see the people of the DPRK as estranged brothers; those on the Right are more focused on the potential military threat and ideological lunacy just across the DMZ.

One self-styled conservative South Korean analyst got to the heart of the problem when he identified the motives for Pyongyang’s wanting nuclear weapons as being ultimately about personal survival for the ruling class. Using nuclear weapon and missile programs to maintain a sense of confrontation with the outside world may be the dictatorship’s best hope of quarantining North Korea’s people from friendly contact with those malign external forces (information, freedom and commerce) most likely to undermine the regime’s existence. After all, for Pyongyang’s elite, true regime change could amount to a lynching — so deep runs the silent resentment and hatred in a country where a single prison camp can occupy hundreds of square kilometers.

Where does all this leave the enormous challenge facing the ICNND, and its chairs Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi, in trying to devise a blueprint for turning back the spread of nuclear weapons?

For me, the most devilish aspect of the problem is that way its pieces interlock. North Korea scares Japan into wanting stronger military capabilities, including missile defences, as well as a US ally that is prepared to sustain a posture of threatening the first use of nuclear weapons on Japan’s behalf. (If this US assurance was removed, it is argued, Japan might look literally to its own devices.) Meanwhile US extended deterrence and US-Japanese missile defences reinforce China’s unwillingness to join a nuclear disarmament process.

This puts the ball in Beijing’s court. China has long talked the talk of nuclear disarmament. Indeed, if I was a serious Chinese security scholar, I would be annoyed that the US had stolen my country’s high moral ground while my own government stonewalled on making any public response to Obama’s Prague initiative.

So China needs to show North Korea some real displeasure. I would be astounded if Beijing has really exhausted all viable options on this front. Any progress China can make in impeding or rolling back North Korea’s nuclear (or missile, chemical or biological) programs will strengthen its case in demanding that the US and Japan reconsider their missile defence expansion and nuclear first-use doctrine as a condition for Beijing embarking seriously on its own nuclear disarmament.

Photo by Flickr user Jon.T, used under a Creative Commons license.