Writing from the embassy in Seoul, Martin Uden, Britain’s Ambassador to South Korea, captures beautifully in his blog the bizarre and disturbing events of recent days. 22 November started like any other day for the Ambassador but it ended with the fear that North Korea’s shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeoung might tip into a full-blown military exchange.
His blog – alongside his tweets – give a fascinating insight into the machinery of government and how it works in crisis situations like this. It also shows how even in the field of diplomacy blogging and tweeting wins hands down over other forms of reporting.
What are we to make of recent events? The deployment of the US navy to South Korea appears to have contained the situation for the moment even if it has upset the Chinese. But, how do we explain the actions of North Korea and how should the international community respond over the medium and long-term?
Making sense of the actions of a closed and secret authoritarian regime is always going to be difficult. North Korea’s claim that a series of long-standing military manoeuvres involving the US and South Korean navy resulted in aggression against the North is possible, but it doesn’t hold water or closer scrutiny.
More likely, is that at a time when the North is struggling to feed its people and when there is such political uncertainty surrounding the succession process the government decided that creating a foreign crisis might help to shore up domestic support. The government in North Korea is durable because of its use of an internal regime of terror, but it is not a regime for the modern era.
Barring major reform this is not a regime that can survive the long term. A leadership that depends on the military’s loyalty for survival is one that needs to show the military that they are a capable leader and give the military the success that it craves. Depending on how this all works out, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a narrative emerging from North Korea that portrays the young Kim Jong-un as the genius behind the attacks.
Equally plausible, however, is that political leaders in North Korea calculated that a show of strength ahead of the anticipated re-start of the Six Party Talks process to address the North’s nuclear weapons programme might somehow strengthen its negotiating hand. Also possible is that this show of force by North Korea is a response to the referral to the UN of its sinking of the corvette the Cheonan on March 26 and subsequent efforts to sanction it.
We better hope that an explanation for North Korea’s action relies with the latter two explanations rather than the former. What I think has become clear is that a serious eruption of military violence on the Korean peninsula is unlikely to stem from an action made by South Korea, but would be the result of a miscalculation by North Korea. The calibrated response from the South Korea President Lee Myung-bak has been thankfully steady but cool given the considerable domestic pressures that he faces.
So where does this leave us?
Formal sanctions have been tried before but have proved to be ineffective due to the lack of support from China. This leaves diplomacy as the only credible option, but there are difficulties here as well. Political declarations from the UN will exert pressure on North Korea short-term but it is unlikely to change North Korea’s behaviour long-term.
The Six Party Talks might prove a useful diplomatic vehicle but the recent disclosure that North Korea has a new modern nuclear facility shows how ineffective this forum has been. The US is probably right here to resist China’s calls for a swift resumption of these talks without some prior concession from Pyongyang. But would the prospect of seeing both North Korea and the US cushioned in endless meetings be such a bad thing given the recent escalation? The answer here depends on whether you want to contain or resolve this crisis.
If diplomacy is to have any chance then much here depends on the role that China plays. To be fair China is in a terrible position. Chinese investment Chinese aid and Chinese energy all keep the regime in Pyongyang alive. If China were not a factor, North Korea would not be able to exist.
China is definitely concerned by the situation in North Korea, it has been for some time – even to the extent that it supported a resolution in the United Nations Security Resolution last year following North Korea’s second nuclear weapons test. But, there are limits on how far China is willing to go. China fears any action that might bring down the regime in North Korea might hasten the reunification of the Korean peninsula. The last thing China wants is a state allied to the US bordering its territory.
China might be able to prevent North Korea from collapsing from outside pressure – sanctions, diplomatic isolation etc – but it will find it difficult over time to prevent North Korea from collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Therein lays the challenge for China and the dilemma for the rest of us.
How China responds to events and developments on the Korea peninsula will tell us a lot about China’s global leadership potential and the future shape of the international political system. My hope is that China will take the steps necessary to restrain North Korea and in time work with the US and help manage the transition in North Korea to a less dangerous regime. What do you think?