03 June 2009

North Korea: are they all mad?

The response of many commentators to the latest North Korean nuclear test has been to assert in effect that the North Korean regime is irrational, impossible to do business with, “mad bad and dangerous to know”, and that the only sensible response is to “get tough”.

This is sloppy and dangerous thinking. It is always a soft intellectual option to characterise an antagonist as “irrational” - they might march to the beat of a different drum, but they usually have their reasons – and the idea that getting tough will work is in fact a contradictory one, predicated on an assumption that the regime in question will respond “rationally” (i.e in the way we would like) to this toughness.

In the particular case of North Korea the “get tough” options are pretty limited. Military action can be ruled out, except perhaps to people who could persuade themselves that seeing Seoul reduced to rubble overnight in retaliation would be an acceptable level of “collateral damage”.

To those who would favour economic sanctions rigorous enough to precipitate regime collapse I would counsel “be careful what you wish for” – chaos in one of the most militarised states in the world, with over a million in the regular army and over three million in the reserves, plus loss of regime control over its nuclear capability and technology, would not be in anyone’s interest.

This leaves us with what should always be the first option, to discover the logic of the other side’s position and fashion a diplomatic response to that – leading, as noted in North Korea: time to win the nuclear game, to tough talk about the real issues that drive policy on both sides.

An illuminating presentation on the logic of the North Korean position was aired recently by Professor Hazel Smith, Head of the Resilience Centre at Cranfield University in the U.K., in her introductory remarks on ABC Radio National’s Australia Talks, Monday 1 June 2009 (starting about six minutes into the program).

Professor Smith is dismissive of any suggestion that the latest test is designed to extract more aid from the United States, as some have suggested, and points out that in any event very little economic aid has come from the United States in recent years – most of it has come from China and South Korea.

She also disagrees strongly with the notion that diplomacy doesn’t work in the case of the North Koreans. The North Koreans have two key objectives: regime survival and economic development. In pursuit of both of those they want normalisation of relations with the United States – which means for them that the United States would not invade them, in return for which they would give up their nuclear weapons.

In 2006, at the time of the first nuclear test, the Six Party Talks had stalled. After the test the senior and highly capable Ambassador Christopher Hill – an expert negotiator and a man who could get things done in Washington - was introduced into the scene. Very intensive negotiations followed.

Last northern summer, the North Koreans produced 18,000 pages of information about their nuclear programs and the United States introduced into the negotiations a demand that the 18,000 pages be verified before the talks could go anywhere. The North Koreans saw this as negotiating in bad faith – they had expected that verification would be negotiated, not demanded.

On top of that, Ambassador Hill has now been promoted for his efforts, to become U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, which has left a hiatus in the negotiating process. Stephen Bosworth has been named as Christopher Hill’s replacement, but he is effectively only working part time because he is still at his university.

Professor Smith argues that the North Koreans have learned from experience that precipitation of a crisis leads to intensive negotiations. The 1993-94 crisis led to very serious negotiations with the Clinton Administration, the 2006 test led to the intensive negotiations led by Christopher Hill. Accordingly, Professor Smith is inclined to interpret this latest onslaught – nuclear test, missile tests, declaration that the 1953 Armistice is dead – as a North Korean attempt to get the negotiations back on track, rather than a sign that all is lost.

I am not sufficiently expert in matters Korean to be able to read that opaque regime with any confidence, but Professor Smith’s analysis is to me a much more satisfying response and starting point than throwing our collective arms in the air and declaring that they are all mad, you can’t do business with them.

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