International Relations of East Asia as seen through the North Korean Nuclear Issue

Examining the North Korean Nuclear issue is one of the best ways to understand the foreign policies of the major pacific powers.  By almost every metric, North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, but through its military first policy has become disproportionately strong through its large army and nuclear weapons.  Compared to China, Japan, and South Korea, North Korea should not be considered a major power, yet was the focus of the Six Party Talks, one of the most important multi-lateral talks in recent history.  The Six Party Talks included all of the major Pacific powers, and it is a good prism to view each countries diplomatic strategies and priorities.

China played a pivotal role in the Six Party Talks as the host, and as a go between for America and North Korea.  China and North Korea have a special relationship built in blood.  Many North Koreans fought on the side of the Chinese Communists during the Chinese Civil War, and China sent in hundreds of thousands of troops to fight on the North Korean side during the Korean War.  Because of these close ties, other powers like America believe that China has effective influence on North Korean actions.  Throughout the Six Party Talks, America attempted to get China on their side, and get them to end their nuclear program.  This ability is overstated, North Korea has proven itself willing to ignore and provoke its more powerful ally.

One powerful example of this is North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test.  China had previously warned Pyongyang not to carry out a nuclear test, but North Korea conducted its first test without giving China prior warnings of their intentions.  At first China let their anger show, condemning the test and allowing a UN Security Council resolution to pass that imposed strict sanctions against North Korea.  However, rather than continue to punish Pyongyang, China quickly pushed for more diplomatic talks and has not honored the terms of the Security Council resolution.  China and North Korea are like mutual hostages.  North Korea provokes China, acts in a way that could destabilize East Asia, and embarrasses them.  Chinese officials have estimated that North Korea couldn’t survive for a year without Chinese aid.  China does not want nuclear competitors in East Asia, but it will not punish North Korea for fear of its collapse, which would allow South Korea, an American ally, to exist next to its border.

American policy towards North Korea has not been consistent.  Before the North Korean nuclear crisis, America had fought North Korea in the Korean War, and has maintained a military presence in South Korea since 1953.  North Korea has killed and kidnapped Americans since the Korean War, and has counterfeited American currency, but it has rarely been a top priority for American foreign policy.  This changed during the Clinton Administration when the North Korean nuclear program was discovered.  During this time period there was great tension as a military strike was contemplated, but was avoided at the last minute when ex-President Carter went to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung.  Through this meeting, the Agreed Framework was developed where North Korea would eventually give up its nuclear program in exchange for the U.S. providing fuel and light water nuclear reactors.  This agreement came near the end of Clinton’s term, and would not last.

George W. Bush, the next American president had a different view of North Korea.  He had a personal hatred of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s new leader, and was skeptical of Clinton’s policies.  American policy toward North Korea became more provocative, with exchanges of harsh words on both sides.  In 2005 the Treasury Department declared Banco Delta Asia, a bank in Macao that worked extensively with the North Korean regime, a primary money laundering concern, an action that ended up cutting North Korea off from the international financial system.  This move threatened and angered North Korea so much that they refused to return to negotiations for more than a year.  Within the Bush administration there was interagency disagreements on the way to deal with North Korea, many in the State Department favored diplomacy and conciliation, but others in Treasury and Defense favoring stricter treatment.  After the 2006 nuclear test, diplomacy won out and America returned to the 6 party talks.  America is the most willing to punish North Korea, but it has also given North Korean billions in aid and pushes for greater diplomacy with the primary goal of ending North Korea’s nuclear program.

Japan has a strained relationship with both North and South Korea due to its brutal occupation in the first half of the 20th century.  Japan wants to establish relations with the countries it once occupied, and to put the past behind it.  In the 1990s, Japan began talks with North Korea to normalize relations.  This would have benefits for both countries, Japan could lessen the security threat from North Korea, placate many of the pro North ethnic Koreans living in Japan, and resolve part of its past colonial legacy.  North Korea would benefit from massive amounts of aid from Japan and the possibility of trade.  Ultimately these plans were ended by the North Korean admission that North Korea had kidnapped Japanese citizens, some of which had died.  This admission infuriated the Japanese public, making normalization politically impossible.  North Korea also affected the possibility of relations by testing ballistic missiles in the waters near Japan.  Japan sees the North Korean nuclear program as a major threat.  North Korea is hostile towards Japan, which can partially explain Japan’s increasing militarization.  In the 6 party talks, Japan was stricter on North Korea than either China or South Korea, and had an emotional response to North Korea’s provocations.

South Korea is at once kin and enemies with North Korea.  North Korea is responsible for massive numbers of deaths of South Koreans during the Korean War and has even killed many in recent years through the sinking of a South Korean ship and shelling of a South Korean island.  If North Korea collapses, it is most likely that South Korea will take control of the northern part of the peninsula, leading many to fear a “hard landing” reunification as much as the North Korean nuclear program.  North Korea is multiple times poorer and less developed than South Korea, so any reunification would result in massive costs for Seoul.  It is for this reason that during the time of the 6 Party Talks, South Korea pursued a policy of diplomacy and aid.  South Korea and America are close allies, yet during the 6 Party Talks, there were frequent disagreements between them on how to deal with North Korea.  South Korea frequently pressed America to take a more conciliatory approach to North Korea during the 6 Party talks.  In the times after the talks, more conservative politicians came into power in Seoul, and have taken a more strict approach to North Korean policy.  Despite the more strict approach, current President Park has been open to the idea of working with North Korea if a foundation of trust can be established, and has remained more open to working with North Korea than its American ally.  For Seoul, the nuclear issue is important, but not as important as the possible consequences of reunification.

North Korea is a master of strategic diplomacy.  It is able to be consistently successful in foreign relations despite its weakness.  Out of all the parties in the 6 party talks, North Korea was clearly the most successful.  It continued to build and strengthen its nuclear weapons program throughout the talks, gained billions of dollars worth of aid, got taken off of the U.S. State Sponsors of Terror list, and gave up very little in return.  North Korea left the talks in 2009 and renounced all of its previous agreements.  It has tested nuclear weapons 3 times, and ballistic missiles several times as well.  It has killed South Koreans on more than one occasion, and has suffered little for its actions.  North Korea’s nuclear program makes it unlikely that it will be invaded by another country, but it also means that North Korea will remain isolated.  North Korea is dependent on China for support.  North Korea realizes that it is very unlikely China will abandon them, but this relationship has allowed China to exploit North Korea for its natural resources.  North Korea is unlikely to ever give up its nuclear weapons willingly, it is a major source of power, and a source of legitimacy in its military first society.

North Korea’s nuclear program is likely to remain a key issue in East Asia.  Each major power in the region will have a different view of this program and a different approach.  China and North Korea are likely to remain mutually hostage.  China will be angered by North Korean provocations and will publically condemn them and call for an end to the nuclear program, but will continue propping up the regime.  North Korea will ignore China’s wishes, but will continue to be dependent on China and will allow them access to North Korea’s natural resources.  Japan will continue to be threatened by North Korea’s nuclear program, but will be driven conflicting desires for normal relations and disgust at the regimes kidnapping of Japanese citizens and other provocations.  For America, North Korea will continue to be most important for its nuclear program, but will only be a top priority for America immediately following North Korean provocations.  For South Korea, North Korea will remain the most important foreign policy objective, with concerns over reunification as important as security concerns.


About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
This entry was posted in International Relations, Korea, Pacific Asia, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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