The Korean Peninsula – The Land of No Good Choices

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.

Martin Uden - The Blogging Ambassador

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?

North Korea shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong

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.

Kim Jong-un: The Genius General who can do Daring Things?

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.  

South Korea's President Lee - A Cool Statesman

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.

Six Party Talks - A recipe for endless meetings?

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.

Friends or Neighbours?

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?

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4 Responses to The Korean Peninsula – The Land of No Good Choices

  1. Will Cookson says:

    Very insightful.
    Not so sure I can see the regime changing much. Will China want to lose even further control by allowing change that might get out of control? I imagine China may well be playing a long term game. If their economy continues to motor ahead then I presume that they are prepared to play the long game and think in terms of 20-30 years?

    My bigger concern is how does this change the US and others with how they deal with Iran? Given how much the North Koreans can get away with now that they have a nuclear weapon won’t the US (and maybe Russia) be even more determined to stop Iran? And if so, would they be more prepared to unleash Israel?

    • Thanks for the comments and for opening up the conversation by linking it with Iran.

      Unlike North Korea there is quite a vibrant debate within Iran on the whole WMD front with a range of views across the continuum. I find that encouraging. It is obviously a country undergoing a significant but painful transition. There is the danger here as in North Korea that the President will stoke the flames of popular nationalism by picking a fight with the US to shore up support at home. I do think however that there are enough checks and balances within the Iranian political regime to make Iran different to North Korea.

      Lets hope that the lack of progress over North Korea’s WMD might finally spur Russia and China into action over Iran. China does not have as many strategic interests invested in Iran as it does in North Korea and there are signs that Russia is finally begin to shift its position. But and this is a big but there is a real sense of deja vu here. I can’t help but think we’ve been here before with Iran and with Russia and China.

      I can’t, however, see any other way forward – strategic strikes against Iran’s WMD capacity would I think be the worst of all worlds. It would disrupt but it would not destroy the enrichment process and in that sense it might actually lead to an intensification of production. Lets not even contemplate how it might inflame Arab opinion across the region.

      If Iran does go nuclear, and I’m not sure it will deciding instead to possess the technology and the means of production but falling short of crossing the line, then we might just have to find ways of living with it.

  2. Will Cookson says:

    Just read an article in the Jerusalem post that seems to agonise with the same issues.

    http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=196848

    Relating the experience of North Korea and Iran. I suppose the only real hop I saw in it was the idea that the international community sanctions were hitting harder than Iran (especially Khamenei) expected:
    “We even have some evidence that Khamenei now is beginning to wonder if Ahmadinejad is lying to him about the impact of the sanctions on the economy, and whether he is getting the straight scoop in terms of how much trouble the economy really is in.”
    But I have to admit it doesn’t look great

    • Thanks for this. Interesting article. I think the article is write when it says that no one knows whether Iran will cross the threshold. Lets hope the Iranians are pragmatic. Failing that we might just need to rely on deterrence.

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