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Gridlock on the Korean Peninsula: Is there a way out?

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CDA Institute guest contributor Leszek Buszynski from the Australian National University discusses North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and the challenges facing the Six Party Talks.

There has been gridlock on the Korean Peninsula since the Six Party Talks – involving North and South Korea, the United States, Russia, China, and Japan – were terminated by North Korea’s withdrawal in April 2009.

Initiated in August 2003, their immediate purpose was the termination of North Korea’s nuclear program, but they held out the prospect of a wider security régime for Northeast Asia. It was hoped that the Six Party Talks could be the vehicle for the integration of North Korea into the region, bringing peace and stability to the Korean Peninsula. However, North Korea refused to cooperate and managed to exploit the divisions between the parties to bring its nuclear program to completion. The North conducted three nuclear tests, in October 2006, May 2009, and April 2013, which negated the very idea of Six Party Talks as they were originally conceived. Nonetheless, China has been pressing for their revival and has worked to obtain North Korea’s agreement.

The North has declared that it will only come to the talks if its nuclear status is recognized by the other parties, and by the US in particular. In Pyongyang’s view the US has learned to live with India and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons even though both have violated the non proliferation régime, and it could therefore also learn to live a nuclear North Korea. In the US view there are very great differences between North Korea and India and Pakistan, as the North threatens its neighbours and with its on going ballistic missile program could also threaten American territory. The US and South Korea demand that the North accept denuclearization as a precondition for a revival of the Six Party Talk, which Pyongyang pointedly rejects.

South Korea has been searching for ways to promote inter-​Korean dialogue in a way which would reduce tensions on the peninsula and bring about favourable conditions for eventual unification. Two South-​North summits were held; one was in 2000 when President Kim Dae-​jung met Kim Jong-​il, and another in 2007 when President Roh Moo-​hyun also met Kim Jong-​il. However, the South’s hopes were dashed when the North launched two provocative attacks: the sinking of the South Korean naval frigate Cheonan, with the loss of 46 sailors in March 2010, and the North’s artillery shelling of Yeongpeong island in November the same year, provoking a well-​deserved uproar in the South. For the South, the unconditional revival of the Six Party Talks would be tantamount to condoning the North’s provocations and signalling that it could resort to the same behaviour whenever it wanted.

The US expected that China could use its influence with the North to bring about its denuclearization. However, while China supported the aim of denuclearizing, it also regarded the North as an ally against the US and South Korea. Despite American entreaties, China refused to use its leverage to prod the North towards denuclearization while it was constrained by its relationship with Pyongyang. After its ballistic missile and nuclear tests, China protected the North against American and Japanese demand for tough UN sanctions under Chapter VII. Rather than immediate denuclearization, Beijing sought a freeze of the nuclear program, similar to the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton Administration, and incentives for the North to open up to the world and follow the Chinese path of economic reform. In the context of reformed North Korea, a less paranoid leadership in Pyongyang might accept denuclearization, such indeed was the hope.

China, however, has experienced much frustration in dealing with the North, which has resisted all pressure to reform; when reforms were attempted by Kim Jong-​il in 2002, the whole experiment was quickly aborted. The North ignored Chinese warnings when it conducted its nuclear tests, which revealed that Pyongyang had been exploiting Chinese reluctance to press it over this issue. More recently, China lost its ally in the North Korean system when Jang Song-​taek was executed in December 2013. Jang was Kim Jong-un’s uncle by marriage and leaned towards China, and his removal revealed the limits of Chinese influence and increased Chinese frustration with the North. China was obliged to approach the South with its proposal for the revival of the Six Party Talks in the expectation that this would have an impact upon its relations with the intractable North. This move is an indication of deep trouble in China’s relationship with the North and its inability to press the North to denuclearize.

Six Party Talks are out of the question while the North insists on acceptance of its nuclear status. At least five of the parties (the US, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea) can meet to discuss a negotiation framework for the Korean Peninsula. Five parties could coordinate their policies on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and bring pressure to bear upon the North to accept this position as a starting point for negotiations. Five party talks could be extended into a framework for cooperation and conflict prevention in the event of régime collapse in the North. They could discuss the management of refugee flows into South and China, the extension of food assistance to the population, and most importantly its missile and nuclear sites.

Without agreement between the parties over these issues, conflict may arise should South Korean and Chinese forces move in to take control in the aftermath of régime collapse. However, it would be in the interest of all to avert the collapse of a nuclear-​armed régime with its unpredictable and possibly catastrophic consequences.

It may be possible to encourage trends within the North that could in time bring about changes to the régime. Indeed, trends within the North point to weakened controls over the economy; autonomous management practices have been introduced in farms and factories, private markets have proliferated, and officials have moved into business dealings to secure their economic future. In this context it would be important to increase business contacts with the North in a way that would allow Pyongyang officials to benefit, stimulating those market forces that would bring about eventual change in the North.

South Korea should expand the Kaesong industrial park to include more companies than the current 124 operating there today, and could encourage international participation. Similar initiatives could be proposed where South Korean business groups take advantage of lower wages in the North. To do this, Seoul would have to lift or ease its sanctions on the North, imposed in May 2010 after the sinking of the Cheonan. Rather than quarantining the North, the South’s policy should be to engage it in lucrative business deals that would meet the self interest of the Pyongyang leadership and their desire for profit. This approach would demand considerable patience from the external players. But a long term strategy like this is better than no strategy at all.

Leszek Buszynski is a Lecturer at National Security College, Australian National University. His latest book is Negotiating with North Korea: The Six Party Talks and the Nuclear Issue (Routledge 2013). (Image courtesy of Getty Images Asiapac.)

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Guest Sunday, 26 March 2017
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