What To Do With North Korea

North Korea
By Mario Battaglini

The March 2010 sinking of the South Korean vessel Cheonan, near Baengnyeong Island, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island marked yet another in a long series of flare-ups of an entrenched conflict. 

The Korean peninsula was split in 1945, as the armistice of Panmunjom fixed the border at the 38° parallel with no formal peace treaty ever signed by the two parties. Following these events, the fate of the two Koreas has bifurcated sharply. While South Korea has developed a successful market economy and has started a process of liberalisation and democratisation, North Korea has turned into a sultanistic regime that is oriented towards the development of a strong military industry and apparatus. Today, the most concerning aspect is the positive correlation between the North Korean regime's violence and its instability. This is happening within a context of political transition inherent in the dynastic succession and the ensuing competition over internal power.

In the post-Cold War period North-East Asia has emerged as an area of major international insecurity. In a nutshell, the region is characterized by some potentially troubling challenges. These include an unstable balance of power, a distortion in the distribution of political and economic power, both among and within countries, underdeveloped regional institutions, and a series of territorial disputes. Commentators often highlight the security dilemma emanating from the region's anarchy and the main actors' distrust. However, a hegemonic war - reminiscent of Wilhelm II's weltpolitik - does not seem probable for three main reasons. Firstly, the Chinese priority is economic development; secondly, Japan is constrained vis-à-vis rearmament; thirdly, there is a shared regional interest in fostering economic and commercial cooperation. However, the fundamental differences that remain in term of states' internal institutional structures and diverging, if not competing, positions over North Korea and Taiwan mean that prospects for substantial regional integration seem remote. 

North Korea constitutes an irrational sub-system within a disorderly and unstable regional context. The recent outpouring of violence by North Korea appears to be directly linked to the internal succession of the Kim dynasty. Another factor is that Kim Jong Il would, at the same time, be aiming to secure power and to divert North Korean subjects' attention away from recent economic failures, which are due mostly to the regime’s monetary and currency policies. The violence may also be aiming to provide the regime with greater military legitimacy.  Yet, in reality, an increasing proportion of North Koreans have become aware of Southern affluence, not least because of illegal DVDs showing soap operas "made in Seoul". It is therefore not surprising that, according to Seoul's officials, the total number of North Korean refugees to South Korea has doubled in the last three years, having been steady for 60 years previously.

Given this situation, the question of what would happen should the regime collapse is vitally important. For Bonnie Glaser and Scott Snyder of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), there are several potential consequences if the regime breaks down. These include an exponential increase in the number of refugees to China and South Korea, the presence of unsecured nuclear weapons, and the worsening of mistrust among regional actors. Such a scenario appears even more problematic when considering that North Korea stands little chance of managing a successful reform process. On the contrary, according to Will Sung Yang, the dysfunctional Pyongyang regime seems doomed to the same political and economic implosion that the Soviet Union experienced, should it start a reform process. Collapse of the Pyongyang regime would be a question of when rather than if.

How to tackle North Korean instability?

The answer is twofold. With regard to the nuclear aspect, it is necessary to strongly oppose the recognition of North Korean nuclear status. Otherwise, the risk of a domino effect, with other states denouncing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as North Korea did in 2003, would be too high. A firmer stand should be upheld since opening to negotiations without prior North Korean concessions would reward the March and November shellings. An additional factor is the recent revelation that Pyongyang has constructed   a uranium enrichment facility. Conversely, a surgical attack on North Korean soil seems to be a dubious option since North Korea is already in possession of a small nuclear arsenal. One out of ten North Korean subjects is in the army and a conventional attack against Seoul is a concrete threat. The best option, therefore, is to pursue multilateral negotiations with the specific goal of containing the nuclear threat.  Few observers believe that Pyongyang will ever willingly give up its nuclear programme altogether, given the formidable strategic deterrent that it constitutes.

A second aspect to take into consideration is the idea of reunifying the peninsula. In addition to being impractical in the short run, two pernicious consequences could result from this approach. On the one hand, Korean reunification would bring about a change in the status quo in favour of greater western influence in the region. It is difficult to see China consenting to this option. China has strong geopolitical and security-oriented interests in the Korean Peninsula, strong commercial links with North Korea, and access to its mineral wealth. There would also be an enormous socio-economic impact from reunification. South Korea's sacrifice would be far higher than that faced by West Germany in the early 1990s, giventhe far greater underdevelopment of North Korea, its demographic characteristics, and the absence of a regional and supranational integration mechanism.

In conclusion, the most appropriate policy for the international community in the short, medium and long run would be to combine multilateral negotiations with a firmer stand on Pyongyang. The international community should promote confidence building measures in order to avoid pernicious escalations, and start opening up the two countries to each other to create economic synergies that facilitate their rapprochement. An intelligent, nuanced approach is needed - an approach located somewhere between the hawks and the doves. 


Mario Battaglini holds a MSc in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. His research interests include nationalism, federalism, European integration, human rights and refugees. 


11 April 2011