North Korea: Challenges and Further Considerations
In the last 6 months, the problems presented by North Korea to regional security can hardly have been overlooked. The tensions on the Korean peninsula have been subject to discussion in the United Nations Security Council, have been subject to Tweets from President Trump, and have been widely reported and commented on. But, rather than reiterate the analysis offered by a number of other commentators and experts, this post seeks to offer a wider perspective on the considerations of ‘what to do’ regarding North Korea and its most recent period of assertive behaviour.
1) Is China the ‘silver bullet’ for the problem?
Frequent calls, and indeed President Trump’s approach to this thorny issue, seem to be to get China on-side and take North Korea in hand. However, as noted in other places, these headline (or policy tweets) don’t convey the precarious and problematic web of interests and considerations Beijing must contend with.
In the public debate, it is often noted that China needs to be more effective at implementing sanctions against North Korea and use the other tools of leverage available (oil exports and coal imports) to ‘tighten the screws’ on the regime. This argument may hold some weight in considering one interest of China is to prevent the nuclearization of the peninsula. However, it assumes that North Korea couldn’t supplement or switch its close relations to other powers. A cursory glance at a map indicates that North Korea also has a land border with Russia and diplomatic exchanges between DPRK and Russia have experienced a notable uptick in the past three years including a reported comment from Putin that “intimidation” of North Korea should stop, however, analysis from NK News argues this would be an unwise move from Russia. Nonetheless, in recent weeks the emerging coordination between China and Russia regarding North Korea is a troubling development but not wholly surprising given he pressures from the US.
In a worst case scenario for China, it is perhaps necessary to consider the possibility that if it pushes the regime too hard (and in response to requests/demands from the US) its political leverage over the regime could reduce and therefore, hamper, rather than help the easing of tensions. China is presented with a difficult situation in terms of the potential conflict between a range of its own interests and between its own interests and the narrative and pressures from the United States.
In addition to these political geographic pinch-points, China also needs to consider and balance other factors. These include the relations in the border areas where trade relations with North Korea contribute to the economic growth and regional development (explored in more depth by Ramon Pacheco Pardo).
2) Political Situation in South Korea
Although a connection has seldom been acknowledged, the political turbulence in the Republic of Korea is also a factor in understanding the wider regional relations, stability on the peninsula, and the role that China can play in managing North Korea. As we move into a potential period of a more constructive policy stance from Seoul, the dynamics are likely to switch again. With questions already being raised as to the implementation of THAAD and an engagement policy towards the North, both queries have the potential to bring China and South Korean approaches closer together, and leaving the US and Japan potentially adjusting to the new realities.
3) What happens next? The wider implications
A significant lacuna in the current discussions regarding the DPRK is consideration and discussion of what happens next. The Republic of Korea have been planning for reunification for decades and have a dedicated ministry to develop plans including an annual White Paper on Unification. To enhance their approach they can also draw on the experience of receiving North Korean Defectors.
Despite the existence of these plans, and the potential sources of information to develop them, they seem to present an overly optimistic view of the process of unification. As early as 2001, Jonathan Pollack was raising concerns, including the economic differences, the political and societal challenges, about the potential for reunification on the Korean Peninsula. Although, he did propose that there may be four prospects for how this would come about (erosion, virtual unification, incremental transition, and extinction) but his gloomy conclusion remains valid, that the prospects for this larger goal require the current challenges to be effectively managed.
Today, in light of the rise of China and the potential for competition between China and the US, the challenges presented for reunification are increasing sand the focus on what happens next needs to be more in focus. However, there is a relative dearth in suitable or ‘good’ examples to draw upon for this case. Although discussions have centred on peaceful unification and ‘The German Model’, this seems to be increasingly implausible. As tensions rise on the peninsula, it is understandable that the prospect of conflict has been muted. However, there are (at least) two concerns that this raises in the complexity of China’s position, the first is its states objection to ‘interference’ and the second is the related issue of regional stability.
In other cases of domestic change, and ‘interference’, the process of acting responsibly but also regional stability has continually presented problems – whether this is in the case of Libya, Afghanistan, or Iraq. As can be seen from each of these cases, the problems of the plans for the rebuilding of each state has led to regional disruption. In all of these attempts China’s increasingly present critique has been how to deal with the process of engagement and the outcomes of it – China’s focus on the need to respond responsibly to international crises has been noted in the debates around the responsibility to protect. Although this general position has been criticised, as have the specific instances of China’s actions, and it has been used as an indicator of China acting irresponsibly, there is a kernel of wisdom in this consideration. Given the wider security challenges in the Northeast Asian region it should perhaps be given more credibility.
A further, ‘what next’ consideration is the significant side-stepping of the issue, that although the government in the ROK is in favour of unification the population in South Korea are less enthusiastic. Estimates of the costs of unification, as well as many different perceptions of the cultural differences between the two countries, and the different national narratives of the Korean War, all present notable and unavoidable person-to-person tensions in any future plans.
In summary, perhaps it is necessary to consider the problems and complexities China is faced with in how it responds to the demands of the US and others in dealing with the DPRK. In addition, it may be necessary to have a more engaged and developed discussion of these considerations. In particular, a better understanding of the complexity of the challenges, at the local, national, regional, and international levels, that China is facing in managing North Korea would be helpful in generating polices and approaches. It would be even better if this understanding was then complemented with an underscoring these discussions with the debates on how Chinese foreign policy is developed and implemented.