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An Alternative Approach to the DPRK’s Nuclear Issue

Feb 15 , 2013
  • Su Xiaohui

    Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted its third nuclear test in total disregard to the common opposition of various countries and international organizations.

Simply put, the international community is frustrated. It was reported that the test was successful, using a miniaturized nuclear device with greater explosive force. This indicated new progress for the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities, showing that the country would be able to produce a warhead small enough to mount on a long-range missile.

Besides the issue of nonproliferation, North Korea’s most recent nuclear test means that previous international efforts to prevent the country from pursuing its nuclear ambitions once again proved in vain.

Existing Approaches Have Not Worked

At first, sanctions were widely believed to be an effective way to shape Pyongyang’s behavior. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has adopted rounds of sanctions; the latest was UNSC Resolution 2087 in response to the DPRK’s rocket launch last December. The resolution included asset freezes and travel bans on critical North Korean companies and officials. It strengthened and expanded the scope of existing sanctions, making them more effective and far-reaching.

Now, the US is seeking further action from the UNSC while the UNSC considers another round of sanctions against Pyongyang. Japan is even considering imposing unilateral sanctions on the country.

However, it seems that previous sanctions have failed to change policy in Pyongyang. All three nuclear tests were conducted in the context of sanctions and great international pressure; thus, showing the DPRK will not surrender to sanctions, since they do not have a devastating effect on its political regime. The country has been operating in a relatively isolated environment for such a long time that it has proclaimed itself as a “self-reliant” state.

In fact, the DPRK was even not scared by the possible negative impacts of its missile launches and nuclear tests. Given Pyongyang’s prior experiences, the nuclear test would greatly impact its relationship with the international community including the US, Japan and South Korea. However, the negative effect is not irreversible. By using smart, diplomatic approaches the DPRK could repair relations and improve its image in the international environment.

Some parties ascribed the failure of previous sanctions to the noncooperation of China. They believe that most of the world’s powers were allied in efforts to ostracize the DPRK, but China shared economic exchanges and a special political relationship with North Korea, even though China voted in favor of implementing the UNSC sanctions. In other words, China has played a role in the strengthening of Kim’s regime.

An idea has been proposed calling for China to join in the uniform sanction against North Korea and isolate the country from international aid until it ceases nuclear programs. The problem is that it is against China’s principle of building harmonious relationship with neighboring countries. Meanwhile, China will not yield to Western countries’ attempts to punish a country, in part because it does not share the same Western values. Therefore, it is impractical to include China in a union to tame North Korea.

At the same time, approaches preferred by China have also stagnated. China always called for related parties to seek denuclearization through diplomatic channels. However, it was difficult to get these parties to sit down at the negotiation table as mutual trust was fragile. Additionally, the US and South Korea usually set preconditions for talks with the DPRK, which turned out to be the main obstacles for dialogue.

As a result, six-party talks have been stalled for years. After the UNSC adopted the resolution condemning North Korea’s satellite launch last December, the country claimed that six-party talks and the September 19 joint statement would no longer exist.

An Alternative Is Urgently Needed

All related parties, including the US, China, South Korea, Japan and the DPRK should be aware that stability in the region is under great risk. Any provocation could deteriorate the situation.

Despite failure and frustration, it is still too early to give up the goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Actually, it is time to work out comprehensive solutions that take into account the interests and appeals of all related parties.

Solutions to the DPRK’s nuclear issue rest on the following three factors:  open communication, avoiding an arms race, and regional cooperation.

First, the related parties should not waste time and energy bargaining about the pattern or make-up of the talks. Instead, willing parties should embrace open communication. Regardless if a bilateral or multilateral platform is chosen for talks, this open discourse is helpful in reducing the built-up tension.

Second, a vicious arms race circle should be avoided. The competition between the DPRK’s nuclear and missile capability and the United States’ nuclear umbrella will lead to further military build-up in the region. Moreover, the proposed US-Japan-South Korea anti-missile system would only make the situation more complicated. Ultimately, a zero-sum game is against every country’s interests.

Finally, comprehensive solutions should be presented in an extensive framework, aiming at regional development and cooperation. Signs indicate that the new leadership in the DPRK has already begun to pay more attention to the country’s economic development and reform. This is an opportunity for other parties to engage this country and involve it in the framework’s construction. A proposal about energy and economic cooperation in the Peninsula may be an appropriate starting point for the whole plan. Afterwards, the mechanisms for security and common prosperity in Northeast Asia will catch up.

Su Xiaohui is Deputy Director of the Department of International and Strategic Studies at the China Institute of International Studies.

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