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Current Situation in The Korean Peninsula and Choices for The International Community

Feb 14 , 2011
  • Gong Keyu

    Deputy Director, Shanghai Institute for Int'l Studies

The recent two months have witnessed a series of nuclear-related events pushed by the United States, including the issuing of the Nuclear Posture Review, the signing of US-Russia nuclear arms reduction pact and the opening of a nuclear security summit in Washington and the NPT review conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

As a result, nuclear security, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism have become international hot spots. And it seems that US President Barack Obama is making the world believe he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him for the initiative of “a world free of nuclear weapons”.

Currently, neither the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, despite its two nuclear tests, nor the Six-Party Talks, though stalled for 17 months, are the focus of the international community. However, the DPRK seems to have become anxious instead of willingly staying marginalized. Its international environment has grown worse because of the UN sanctions, and its relations with major neighboring powers have become difficult to maneuver. Domestically, its ambition of building the DPRK into a “strong and prosperous state” by 2012 has proved to be remote due to its problems in last year’s currency reform and the current food shortage.

The United States shows neither silence nor anger over the DPRK’s frequent provocations. To be more specific, the US is following the “123 not’s” policy, that is, not to reward for wrong actions, not to fall in the same place twice, not to buy Yongbyon three times. What the US is concerned about is denuclearization and non-proliferation, therefore, it can wait and see, and worry but not be afraid.

For the US, the DPRK, armed with nuclear weapons, would pose three urgent challenges: 1) DPRK’s nuclear weapons, loaded on long-range missiles, will cause destructive damage on distant targets including the US homeland; 2) In order to get foreign currencies or reach other purposes, the DPRK will possibly sell nuclear weapons to any buyer, including terrorist organizations, or proliferate nuclear weapons or technologies, which will pose a grave threat to the US; 3) DPRK’s nuclear weapon will pose a direct threat to Japan and South Korea, which will shatter the security foundation of US-Japan and US- ROK military alliance, and result in a chain reaction in Northeastern Asia seeking nuclear weapons.

The US has built three lines of defense for the three types of challenges. The US firstly can effectively prevent the DPRK developing nuclear technology via UN sanctions, secondly cut it’s maritime and air channels of proliferation through UN sanctions and PSI, and thirdly make Japan and ROK give up their intention to develop nuclear weapons by stressing the US nuclear umbrella and the alliances.

With all these measures, the US believes that the DPRK will have been put in a box since whatever it does will not affect the surrounding areas and the external world.

But, does putting the DPRK in a box mean a solution once and for all? Are we free of the DPRK nuclear quagmire?

So long as the DPRK does not feel a substantial improvement in its strategic environment, it will pursue the policy of having nuclear weapons both for regime stability and national security. Currently, the DPRK regards nuclear weapons firstly as a final national goal in order to resist potential US military strike, secondly as a bargaining chip for economic aid and diplomatic benefits, and thirdly as a tactic to win back control of the Six-Party Talks.

An “insecure” DPRK will always cause uncertainties in its relations with the ROK and the US, and for prospects of the Six-Party Talks and the situation on the peninsula.

From the North Korean Submarine Incident, Skirmish in the West Sea, the BDA Issue, etc., every seemingly isolated incident has left a mark in north-south relations and the situation on the peninsula.

As a matter of fact, even the unexpected incidents of the last two months, including the Cheonan incident, the DPRK’s confiscation of the ROK’s assets in Mt. Kumgang area and the dissatisfaction of the US and the ROK with Kim Jong-il’s China visit, have cast a shadow on the already strained and subtle situation on the peninsula.

The Korean Peninsula has been witness to the dynamics of big powers and delicate intermingled national interests. Since the end of the Cold War, big powers in the region have kept adjusting their foreign policies to the ever-changing situation and sought to exert more influence over the region. The relative status of the region does not only depend on the general trend of world development, but also on the interest and power structure of the four big countries, namely, China, Russia, Japan and the US.

It is unfortunate that the ending of the Cold War has not brought real peace for the peninsula but made it “the last living fossil of the Cold War”.

The situation on the peninsula has been unpredictable for long, and any serious incident might cause a new crisis. After the DPRK withdrew from the Armistice Mechanism, the peninsular legally returned to quasi-war status. Within such a context, any skirmish, as a result of distrust, might lead to an irreversible outcome. And the efforts in exploration for the transformation from armistice agreement to peace agreement, and from the Six-Party Talks to Northeastern Asian security mechanism would prove to be of no avail.

The chain reactions caused by the DPRK’s nuclear issue have plunged the region into a security dilemma. The actions that the DPRK might adopt include developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, stirring up conflicts in the West Sea, kicking off the project to produce high enriched uranium, and restarting the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, etc. In response, the US might reemphasize that it will provide a nuclear umbrella for Japan and the ROK; the ROK might consider transferring war-time operational control to the US; Japan might take advantage of the DPRK’s nuclear and missile crisis to instigate domestic panic.

The choices before the international community include: 1) ignoring, that is, do not respond to whatever measures the DPRK takes, 2) waiting, that is, wait until the DPRK’s regime collapses, 3) intervening, that is, strengthen communication and consultation on one hand, and pressure with sanctions on the other. And it might be another option to make the DPRK adopt reforms and opening up policy, which might finally lead to the solution of the nuclear issue, but it is certainly very difficult.

The Six-Party Talks will remain an ideal stage for dialogue, communication and consultation for relevant parties, and will also play the function of collecting experience in handling regional conflicts and preventing proliferation.

In other words, the Six-Party Talks serve as a venue: 1) to avoid loss of control of the situation and an upgrade of conflicts between the DPRK and the US or between the DPRK and the UN; 2) to preclude the DPRK from conducting the nuclear test; 3) to prevent proliferation; and 4) to avoid a race of nuclear buildup in Northeast Asia.

The current status does not necessarily conclude the total failure of the efforts of the international society or the Six-Party Talks, but it only proves that their past actions need some improvement.

In the future, they should make joint efforts to reaching consensus on following issues:
1) To clarify each party’s interest and objective, and speak with only one voice towards the DPRK. In the past, it looked as if the other five were united against the DPRK, yet in fact, the DPRK only had to deal with them separately, hence it had the biggest latitude.

2) To strictly implement UN resolutions and sanctions so as to demonstrate to the DPRK that its actions are unacceptable and that it has to pay for it. Different measures should be ready for any possible DPRK action in the future to warn the country that the international community is both resolute and prepared.

3) To clarify relevant terms as well as rights and obligations of all related parties. In the past, there existed much ambiguity in relevant terminology. For example, the concept of “denuclearization” did not explicitly include enriched uranium, which has turned out to be the DPRK’s premise now. Meanwhile, every country should behave consistently and avoid appearing eclectic or using “double standards.”

4) To enhance the reform of international NPT mechanisms on the basis of the UN and IAEA, especially to prevent other countries from following the DPRK’s logic that “nuclear weapons can both ensure security and resist the US.”

5) To truly understand the DPRK’s concern so as to explore ways for the North to abandon nuclear weapons of its own will, and to stick to the core of the issue without bothering about irrelevant matters. In short, only by addressing both the symptoms and the root causes can the DPRK nuclear issue be totally resolved.

The discussions about the DPRK’s relations with the US and China, and prospects for the Six-Party Talks and the security situation on the peninsula should become frequent.

Being an immediate neighbor of the Korean Peninsula and one of the few countries having friendly relations with both the DPRK and ROK, China has special interests in the Korean Peninsula.

The peninsula is connected with China by mountains and waters. Its special geographical location, history and reality closely affects China’s political, military and economic security. Therefore, China has already played and will continue to play a constructive role in the issues of the peninsula while maintaining its own national interests as well.

China’s consistent positions on Peninsula issues, that is, “denuclearization of the peninsula, opposition to proliferation, and maintaining Northeastern Asian peace and security”, have become even more important within the serious context.

1) China is resolutely opposed to the DPRK’s nuclear test. Unlike the US, ROK and Japan, China has to face the direct security challenges of post-test nuclear pollution and refugees as a result of the nuclear test. The possible chain reactions such as competitions in nuclear weapons research will hurt peace and stability in Northeastern Asia and even the whole Asia-Pacific area, and will undermine China’s peripheral environment necessary for its peaceful development.

2) China regards peace and stability as a priority before denuclearization, that is, to put forward denuclearization with the premise of peace and stability.  Stress on denuclearization without consideration for peace and stability is to disregard the DPRK’s reasonable security concerns, which will only result in the DPRK’s increasing insistence on its nuclear weapons program through self-help behavior.

3) China’s role is not as big as some may imagine, and has not declined because of the nuclear test. China has been in contact with relevant parties, including the DPRK, and adhered to resolving the problem through consultation and dialogue. Dialogue is better than confrontation. China’s dialogue with the DPRK will play a crucial role while other countries are in confrontation with it. In the meantime, China follows an independent peaceful foreign policy, develops friendly relations with all countries on the basis of the five principles of peaceful coexistence, and will not “coerce” DPRK’s compliance as some other countries demand.

4) China strongly opposes “the argument that the six-party has met its death”. The Six-Party Talks are an ideal platform for dialogue, communication and consultation among relevant parties and are of particular significance in dealing with a “nuclearized DPRK” though the two nuclear tests have in some way neutralized their previous efforts. Also, the Six-Party Talks shoulder the responsibility of managing the nuclear crisis and conflicts between relevant parties apart from their function in resolving nuclear disputes.

5) The Six-Party Talks are also a demonstration of China’s “new diplomatic thinking”, as China’s shuttle diplomacy and mediation have indicated. As a responsible regional power and influential global power, China will not give up its efforts after the frustration of the new situation.

The DPRK nuclear issue is deeply rooted in the complexity of history and real politics, and can never be resolved overnight. But we believe that regional peace and stability can be attained through strengthening multilateral security dialogue, increasing mutual understanding and trust, sharing the concept of cooperative security and constructing norms of reasonable and equitable international relations.

Gong Keyu is Deputy Director of Center for Asia-Pacific Studies, Shanghai Institute for International Studies

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