Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 18:57 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 18:57 | SYDNEY

Our North Korea policy isn't working


Malcolm Cook

27 May 2009 15:08

Last year, The Interpreter hosted a debate about the future of the Six-Party Talks and how to deal with a nuclear North Korea. At the end of that debate, I expressed the worry that the future of Northeast Asia would be one with an unbowed nuclear North Korea, a failed Six-Party Talks, Japan and South Korea looking at the nuclear option, and the US facing tough questions from regional allies about extended deterrence and the fact that, for them, North Korea is not simply a proliferation issue.

Well, it looks like this future is a few North Korean detonations and missile launches closer. South Korea, still in mourning for the suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun, is publicly wondering about autonomous nuclear options.

Trying to divine what Pyongyang’s actions really mean and what they are driven by is extremely difficult. But it seems to me Pyongyang's recent actions — strangling the economic ventures with South Korea established during the now seemingly naive 'Sunshine Policy' era; the missile tests; the second nuclear detonation and the bombastic rhetorical attacks on South Korea — all suggest that North Korea’s succession preliminaries are strengthening the hand of military hard-liners to the cost of others arguing for North Korea to slowly open up to the rest of the world.

If this is true, then the stock standard suggestions that we are seeing throughout the media — make more earnest attempts to convince Pyongyang back to the Six-Party Talks and offer even more diplomatic understanding and help to reform, in the hope this will shift Pyongyang politics away from the hard-liners — all seem naïve. North Korea is now the single most pressing regional security concern in East Asia and one that challenges the very bases of the US alliance system and Japan’s and South Korea’s decision not to follow its authoritarian neighbours and go nuclear.

A better way to change thinking in Pyongyang may be for the US to make it clear that a North Korea is not simply a proliferation problem. This would put the US on the same page as Japan and South Korea and provide a good basis for the three to work together to put more pressure on China and Russia, who need to be clearer with Pyongyang that bad actions result not in 'tough' rhetoric and the future promises of more help but in clear concrete costs now and into the future. 

I fear that the present way of dealing with North Korea, and Pyongyang's use of the uncalculable threat of potential regime failure (although the regime seems very robust in staying in power while denying its citizens just about everything), is helping North Korea develop the capabilities that the Six-Party Talks and early regional efforts have tried to deny. It may even lead to a regime succession that suits North Korea’s nervous neighbours even less — the establishment of a more self-isolating and harder-line regime that is even more confident it can continue to divide its neighbours with the twin threats of nuclear weapons and regime collapse.

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