One Peninsula, Two Countries: Living With A Nuclear Neighbour

I write this in Seoul, where life goes on as normal: any mention of the North Korean threat is met with ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’ With a per capita income of $1 340 in 2016, a mere 4.5% of its southern counterpart, North Korea is no longer living its glory days after the end of the Second World War to the 1970s, when its economy exceeded than that of the South. How can the question of what to do about North Korea be ‘resolved’?

The contradiction between Trump and Tillerson continues: talks with North Korea without any conditions, or is denuclearization a perquisite before any dialogue? Each fosters a different ‘North Korea policy’, whilst Kim Jong-un maintains his declarations for North Korea to be recognized as a nuclear state. Though we may hate to admit it in the West, he seems to be edging ever closer to this goal, irrespective of the quality and/or quantity of such weapons. After the possibility of a U.S. naval blockade of North Korea, a spokesman for DPRK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned the USA’s confrontational stance was a ‘deathbed struggle by those alarmed by the might of the DPRK always emerging victorious’, ‘an act of war…against which merciless self-defensive measures’ would be taken.

This rhetoric is nothing new, but the vicissitudes of the Trump era have ushered in cycles of a war of words between the USA and the DPRK, bearing little fruit. Words have meaning. Although diplomacy is highly performative, similar to Goffman’s dramaturgy, acts of ‘diplomacy’ such as those by Mr Trump, carry weight in determining future actions. North Korea is, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s terminology, one of the ‘unknown unknowns’ of this world; these ‘unknown unknowns’ are the most difficult problems to tackle. The reality is thus: one Peninsula and two countries demarcated geographically, but estranged socio-culturally and economically by a far greater gulf.

In the short term, now is not the time to prioritize unification. Now is also not the time for the USA to consider military strikes on this ‘rogue state’, or any similar further provocative action, whose consequences on both North and South Korea will be catastrophic (we often forget about the latter). What about denuclearization? Getting North Korea to denuclearize is akin to trying to remove toys from the hands of a young child: one can keep trying, but with little success, and much expended time and energy. The social and political difficulty of this situation – partly due to the changes in U.S. and ROK Presidential administrations – means that any conciliatory approach taken by the USA may be viewed by North Korea as a sign of hangbok (surrender), weakness on the part of the USA, and, in the longer term, may not bear the intended results. We all know how the 1994 Agreed Framework ended, and saw North Korea’s dissimulated ‘cooperation’ with the International Atomic Energy Association. In the present day, there is no chance of North Korea abandoning this crucial bastion of its survival – nuclear capability. The ‘nuclear problem’ with North Korea is also far more than a ‘deterrence works’ approach, to which particular International Relations theory may often lead. It is crucial to focus on the value of nuclear weapons to the regime-state from North Korea’s own perspective. As a CIA Report in 1993 mentioned, we should try and ‘see the world through Pyongyang’s eyes’, as unpalatable as this may be, to assist in devising a more coherent Western policy to address the ongoing threat to global stability, internationally and domestically, that North Korea poses.

As Ra Jong Yil writes, unification for the sake of unification can have deleterious consequences, losing focus on the needs of individuals afflicted by the situation. This comes to my final point – the need to engage not with North Korea, but with North Koreans; those who have defected, and those back home. By doing what may seem small actions, such as the sending Western media to North Korea, some change, albeit part of a large obstacle course towards any larger change, can be propagated. The highly complex puzzle that is North Korea means different stakeholders prioritize different resolutions: nuclear problem or human rights? Economy or Kim dynastic rule? It is not an either/or answer; we must be aware of these interlinked components.

This has not provided many answers to questions about North Korea, but this was not my intention. The status quo may not be acceptable in the longer-term – of which we need to be mindful – but for now, policy should focus on how we can do our utmost with what we have in front of us – this does not mean do nothing – rather than trying to draw blood from a stone. Plus ça change for the short term; it is time to think pragmatically.

As I finish writing, life in Seoul continues apace.