5 (Bad) Options for Dealing with NK (1): Don’t Expect Much from Talks – UPDATE: Today’s Talks flopped again


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Nov. 2 UPDATE: Not that anyone expected any different, but read this on the latest negotiation stalemate. Is anyone really surprised at this point? This just bolsters my point in this post that negotiation is just not working  – not that we shouldn’t try, but expectations should be very, very low.

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So off I went last Thursday for yet another conference on how to deal with NK. Honestly, this like a cottage industry here. I spend so much time on NK, it amazes me. If unification ever happens, it is going to bankrupt thousands of academics and think-tankers around the world…

Nonetheless, this was another excellent conference from the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA). KIDA is fairly hawkish, especially on NK – I got some raised eyebrows when I argued that the Sunshine Policy was worth the effort – but honestly, it is hard not to be at this point. NK misbehavior, its rejection of the most basic international norms (man-made famines, gulags, violent provocations against the South, drug running, insurance fraud, counterfeiting), are so severe, that there aren’t too many options left. KIDA also publishes the very good Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, which you should probably read if Asian security is your area.

The conference concerned “Denuclearization and a Peace Community on the Korea Peninsula.” The papers were excellent. I commented on two regarding denuclearization in the run-up to the 2012 nuclear security summit in Seoul. I imagine that the global attention focused on Korea for denuclearization next year helped push the idea behind this conference. Park Geun-hee’s article (she is the front-runner now for the Korean presidency next year) in Foreign Affairs leans in this direction too, but honestly, I am really skeptical NK will change at all, especially after Arab Spring. Over the summer, I argued that NK is likely to go the other way in response to Arab Spring – repress yet more harshly and never, ever give up its nukes. One can only imagine how the footage of Gaddafi being roughed up and then lynched affects despots like Kim Jong Il or Robert Mugabe. One year, you are giving an address to the UN, and the next year you are gunned down in a ditch like some street punk, and all you’ve ‘built’ (Korean socialism, or the ‘Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’) is washed away in a flash. The lesson is never lighten up – ever.

In fact, there was a noticeable gap between the Korean presenters and the foreigners (me, Andrei Lankov, Bredan Howe, Christoph Bluth, Hideshi Takesada). All five of us argued that negotiations would go nowhere, that NK would use them to play for time, capture global attention, and blackmail for aid. Lankov called the Six Party Talks a ‘soap opera,’ and Howe noted that without its nukes, NK would be ‘Turkmenistan without the oil.’ Bluth gave a nice run-down of all the times NK has cheated since the denuclearization talks started – in and out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, cheating on the Agreed Framework, not reciprocating at all during the Sunshine Policy period, violating two of the Six Party joint statements, and then of course, last year’s sinking of the Cheonan and shelling on Yeonpyeong island. Takesada even argued that NK is building ICBMs (!) for the purpose of blackmailing the US in order to achieve unification on its own terms. (Btw, if anyone can verify that last claim, please let me know. That seems pretty extreme, and its important not to read NK, dangerous as it is, in too ideological a fashion. Let’s not make the ‘Iraq-has-WMD’ mistake again.)

The Korean conferees were all far more confident (hopeful?) that negotiation will work. I am not quite sure what to make of that insider-outsider split. Is it because South Koreans see North Koreans are ‘ethnic brothers’ who speak their language, literally, and therefore can be pulled into a deal? Is it because they are vested, as Korean nationals, here in a way that we are not and so therefore overread bargaining even though they may know better? I don’t know, but the non-Koreans were all terribly skeptical.

So here are the options that I laid out, as I see them (comments welcome):

1. Negotiation: This was the point of the conference, and the papers explaining the evolution of a ‘peace community’ on the peninsula were excellent in their detail. IF North Korea comes around and deals in good faith, then there are clear road maps for building down. And I have the strong sense that S Koreans really, really want this. Last year made South Koreans pretty nervous, and no one wants their country to be an armed camp, especially since SK just escaped military dictatorship in the last generation. I think SK would like to be more ‘normal’ with regular participation in the global economy as a regular country, not endlessly hamstrung by NK shenanigans. This is what President Lee’s ‘Global Korea’ campaign is all about – to show that Korea is a global player, not some half-country locked into the Korean ghetto by a mad uncle in the attic. The problem is that the NK just doesn’t negotiate following the pacta sunt servanda principle, so I argued that the best the liberal states of the Six Parties (Japan, SK, US) could hope for it small improvements like a bit more monitoring here or a few more family reunions there. But this is small stuff. Still, at least if N and SK are talking, then are not shooting. That is progress I guess…

Here is part two.

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11 thoughts on “5 (Bad) Options for Dealing with NK (1): Don’t Expect Much from Talks – UPDATE: Today’s Talks flopped again

    • Yeah, I tend to agree. I think the KIDA guys are skeptical too, but it is a big think-tank with lots of recognition, so they talk in hope of a negotiating breakthru. My thoughts on China go up on Friday.

      I have noticed that you comment more and more. Thanks. I appreciate the readership.

  1. I’m not at all advocating war, but has the hypothetical idea of the US military first withdrawing from the peninsula allowing South Korea to independently go to war with North Korea ever been discussed? There would be an incredible human cost on Seoul-Incheon as well as (no doubt more importantly to middle class South Korea) economic cost. But, without the US in the picture, and if Seoul was able to reassure Beijing through a lot of secret negotiations, China might just be dissuaded from involvement. The worst case scenario (apart from nuclear annihilation etc) however would be that North Korea itself would be divided between South Korea and China. I rather see that as a possibility whether US were directly involved or not.

    Separately, I think negotiation with China will not work because China has nothing to lose from the status quo. But more importantly China feels thwarted with Tibet and Taiwan. Beijing will become cooperative on North Korea only if it were ceded Taiwan and Washington stopped supporting Tibet.

    • In my experience at the conferences and teaching on this for awhile, I have never heard this mentioned. Even the most hawkish commentators wouldn’t go this far, for the reasons you mentioned. For as awful as NK is, the costs, nuclear and otherwise, are just too extreme to even contemplate invasion.

      The China stuff will go up on Friday.

      Thanks for reading.

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