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North Korean Questions in 2008: Taking Stock
Author: Lee Shin-wha
Region: Asia
Published May 25, 2011
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North Korean questions can be examined from both traditional and nontraditional security perspectives. North Korea’s use of resources to maintain a large conventional military force continues to pose a traditional security threat to the Korean peninsula. Even beyond the Korean peninsula, the North’s development of nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, and ballistic missiles poses an enormous and extremely serious threat to the region and the world. In particular, North Korea’s sale or transfer of sensitive materials to rogue states or nonstate actors and the regime’s nuclear proliferation ambitions have become a serious security threat to the international community. There has also been concern about North Korea’s active sponsorship of terrorism through the provision of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to terrorism-linked groups (Sharma 2008). Because many countries are determined to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, dealing with North Korea has become a top priority. Meanwhile, the severe famine conditions and energy shortages, worsening human rights violations, and North Korean refugee problems have presented the most difficult nontraditional security concerns for surrounding countries. Although the nuclear issue has been given the most attention by security experts and policymakers, it is clear that the North Korean problem involves a complicated mix of various traditional and nontraditional security issues.

Because of these complicated security concerns, proceeding with the process of denuclearization in exchange for economic incentives has been an extremely difficult and delicate foreign policy task for those countries involved in the six- party talks. The U.S. presidential victory of Barack Obama, who supports the six-party endeavors but also expressed willingness to hold direct talks with the North, has sparked cautious optimism for improved U.S.–North Korean relations, which could in turn provide momentum for expediting the six-party talks and the denuclearization process. Yet Obama’s interest in direct talks with Pyongyang may prove to be a double-edged sword that could worsen inter-Korean relations and isolate other members of the six-party talks. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether and how Obama will be able to maintain this reconciliatory posture toward Pyongyang if Pyongyang does not cooperate with the nuclear dismantlement process, particularly in the verification phase.

These difficulties and uncertainties have become even more complicated by the fact that the North Korean people now are on the brink of mass starvation and require immediate international aid (Kim K. 2008b). The North Korean regime seems to have little alternative but to depend on foreign aid to relieve internal problems. At the same time this dependence could expose the regime to greater risks stemming from external pressures (Samuel S. Kim 2007). This might lead the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, to engage in brinkmanship tactics in order to bring about more favorable conditions; however, this carries a heavy risk of backfiring on Kim’s regime itself. As for the international community, distinguishing between the totalitarian political regime and the innocent populace is not easy. There have been many ethical debates as to whether international aid is actually an instrument of survival for the people or for the political regime.

Furthermore, as the health of Kim Jong-il reportedly deteriorates more rapidly, speculation about the problem of North Korea’s political succession is rising to the surface. This has drawn international attention because, given the unique character of the juche system and Kim’s political regime, the state of Kim’s health could have an impact on regime survival or collapse. If North Korea suddenly collapses, the political, economic, humanitarian, and social consequences would be shockingly complicated and devastating, particularly for the countries involved, including South Korea. Moreover, if the United States and China engage in a large-scale power struggle to gain control of the Korean peninsula (reminiscent of the superpower rivalry in 1945 that divided the peninsula and later the Korean War that occurred in 1950–53) and South Korea is powerless to make its voice heard, then the fate of the peninsula might once again be at the mercy of outside powers. An enormous tragedy would befall the Korean peninsula if conflict were to break out between China and the United States, or possibly Russia. Even if the surrounding countries managed to carry out a contingency plan peacefully in the midst of a state collapse, they would not be able to avoid shouldering the tremendous costs for rebuilding the country and dealing with the refugee problem.

In this light, we need to more fully comprehend the connection between traditional high-politics issues and nontraditional low-politics issues. This is why it is necessary to approach the North Korean questions and to seek solutions using a comprehensive security paradigm. This paper will therefore use a comprehensive framework to analyze the North Korean nuclear issue, the dynamics and limitations of inter-Korean relations, humanitarian problems, and possible contingencies in case of regime collapse.

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