By Sujoyini Mandal, Opinions Columnist, MPP ‘13
Will security assurance counter North Korea’s increasingly aggressive stance on nuclear weapons? This was the essential question at two recent Belfer Center events with guest speakers Dr. John Park from the United States Institute for Peace and Professor Sung-Yoon Lee from Tufts University. What is the current concern? With growing accusations of North Korea colluding with Iran to develop its nuclear program, there is keen interest to understand North Korea’s motivations. The explanation that both speakers provided is a combination of historic geopolitical shocks, role of China, USSR and US in North Korea, DPRK’s leadership cult and South Korea’s rising economic and political clout.
What was DPRK’s security assurance?
Dr. Park traced the history of positives to three key alliances post Korean split in 1945: (i) the Soviet DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) cooperation treaty in 1961(ii) Sino DPRK friendship treaty in 1961 (iii) no hostile intent framework between US and DPRK in 1994 (iv) start of the six party talks in 2003 that aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program via a negotiating process involving China, North and South Korea, Japan, United States and Russia.
Decline in North Korea’s security assurance
In the past 60 years, a number of factors have led to North Korea’s increasing isolation in the regional and international area, not least of which was South Korea’s “economic miracle”. This was accompanied by the loss of China and Russia as staunch patrons since the early 1990s and South Korea’s improving economic and political relationships with Western nations. The final blow came with the advent of the Bush “pre-emption doctrine” that identified North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq. Just after Bush declared the doctrine in October 2002, there was rising concern in North Korea that in the event of an attack from the United States, China would not come to its rescue. Deepening isolation, increasing international pressure, and rising poverty at home culminated in an act of aggression through the missile and satellite launch in April 2009 and nuclear test in May 2009. Events snowballed as the UN Security Council passed resolution 1874 that included multilateral financial sanctions.
Is the solution a renewed sunshine policy?
As Professor Sung-Yoon Lee articulated, there are a number of challenges ahead regarding the durability of any sort of friendship treaties, such as the sunshine (i.e. friendship) policies that have been tested by both South Korea and Beijing in the past decade. Beijing’s sunshine policy is currently the most important for stability in the region. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has changed the rhetoric from security assurance to regime stability for North Korea, but the support may be coming in from the wrong provider. North Korea has always been keen on America’s strategic support for its stability in Asia’s security arena and continues to desire this in spite of the complete lack of love from the US. Simultaneously, North Korea projects a policy of ‘Kangsong Taeguk’ (“rich nation, strong army”) arguably modeled after Deng Xiaoping’s strategies of Chinese modernization to project a strong image of an increasingly fragile state.
In conclusion, as Dr. Parks pointed out, security assurance will play an important role in diffusing North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons’ capability. This assurance has fluctuated greatly in the past three decades, directly impacting the regime’s increasingly aggressive regional and international stance. The attention now is of course directed at North Korean domestic politics after the death of Kim Jong II and the transfer of leadership to his 28-year old son. The US, South Korea and the rest of the world is following a wait and watch policy as they wait for some kind of indication from the country on its internal stability and foreign policy strategy going forward. At the same time, there is no better time than now for the US and other powers to attempt to engage with North Korea to provide a new security assurance framework. However, with US interests concentrated on the Straits of Hormuz and Iran, that does not seem likely in the near future and the world may be well missing out on an opportunity to engage with North Korea.